Around Town: Three shows to consider seeing now

Peter Pan: A Musical Adventure at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Peter Pan: A Musical Adventure at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Not a Christmas show

“Peter Pan: A Musical Adventure” taped live at Chicago Shakespeare Theater two years ago, is now streaming live free of charge (donations appreciated) through Jan. 1, 2021.  It is a newly re-mastered recording of the company’s 2018 production.

Directed and choreographed by Amber Mak, it delightfully proves that not everything watched this time of year has to have a Christmas or Hanukkah theme. Really good for youngsters ages 8-10, its music, story, aerial choreography and 80-minute run-time, makes it entertaining for all ages. For more information visit Chicago Shakespeare Theater

 

An extended Christmas show

“Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol,” Dicken’s moralistic holiday story but with an updated twist, has been extended through Dec. 31, 2020. Originally seen live at specific ticketed times through Dec. 20, the production is now streaming 24/7 through Marquee TV. Tickets are $15.

For Chicago Theater and Arts’ review see A broader Christmas Carol message.   For tickets and more information visit Marquee.tv/videos

 

An annual Chicago live Christmas radio show

American Blues Theater has been doing a live retelling of “It’s a wonderful Live: Live from Chicago,” for more than 19 years. Patterned after the Frank Capra classic as a 1940s radio broadcast with terrific sound effects, the show is continuing through Jan. 2, 2021. For more information visit AmericanBluesTheater/Wonderful Life.

Jodie Jacobs

 

Hershel outsmarts Hanukkah goblins

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (Phot0 courtesy of Strawdog Theatre Company)
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (Photo courtesy of Strawdog Theatre Company)

3 stars

Those Hanukkah candles may be just a melted memory until next year but a fun story about the celebration is still going on at Strawdog Theatre Company.

A few more performances of its yearly story: “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” continues through Dec. 20, 2020.  They can be seen live on zoom at 1 and 4 p.m. this weekend.

Now a Strawdog holiday tradition, “Hershel and the Hanukkah Ggoblins” is an interactive production based on the award-winning book by Eric Kimmel and adapted by ensemble member Michael Dailey.

Even though this really is a show for young children, adults will likely get caught up in the clever ways that Hershel tricks the goblins who have infested a small village and its old synagogue.

By the eight night the Hanukkah lights can once again be lit and the holiday celebrated. Along the way, viewers learn the Hebrew letters on the Hanukkah dreidel and the blessings said over the candles.

For tickets and more information visit  www.strawdog.org.

A Christmas Carol in the dark

3 Stars

 Theatre in the Dark Christmas Carol (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)
Theatre in the Dark Christmas Carol (Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Dark)

Theatre in the Dark celebrates the end of 2020 with their spin on Charles Dickens’ beloved classic tale of self-reflection and repentance.

My first impulse is to suggest that this year more than others in recent memory is a perfect time to reflect on the disparities between the haves and the have-nots. But  I realize that human suffering and greed are continually with us to a greater or lesser degree and  that the Christmas spirit as defined by Dickens is our meager attempt once a year to rise above petty self-interests and consider the greater good. “God bless us, every one.”

“A Christmas Carol” is a fictional expose on the Victorian life and times of  Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, a character whose very name has become synonymous with miserliness, as in “That guy is a real Scrooge.”

In the story, this tightwad scrimps on coal in the winter months, begrudges his only clerk a day off to celebrate the Christmas holiday with the family and, in response to a solicitation of aid to the poor asks, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

When pointed out that many would rather die than go there, Scrooge suggests that “If they would rather die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

His comment exemplifies a degree of callousness and disregard for the welfare of others for no reason other than to hoard his wealth which we learn brings him no personal pleasure.

As the story begins, Scrooge is visited by the specter of Jacob Marley, his deceased business partner. Marley warns of the torments he has endured in the afterlife as a result of his own greed and indifference. He suggests Scrooge may escape the same fate if he undergoes visitations with three additional apparitions – the ghosts of Christmas present, past and future.

Through a nightmarish one-night odyssey, Scrooge sees his negative effect on others, his disregard of positive role models and a lonely end and lamentable legacy if he does not change.

Dickens’ story continues to work as a modern day parable, revealing the darker nature that lurks within us all.

Scrooge’s journey of self-discovery demonstrates that we can each contribute by paying a little more attention to our place within our community and our part in society.

Observing the loving interactions of the Cratchit family and the kind words of nephew Fred, we realize that it is not just about money. We can be greedy with our emotions and personal interactions as well.

Dickens and the cast of Theater in the Dark also pull at our heart strings through the now iconic character of Tiny Tim who, in contrast to Scrooge, has come to exemplify innocent good cheer in the face of adversity and demonstrates that love does not require monetary wealth but can be given freely in abundance.

This iteration of “A Christmas Carol” is offered as an Internet version of a radio drama designed to be enjoyed in a now, largely bygone, aural tradition. Delivered via zoom it requires only a good set of speakers or a headset. The experience is very much like sitting around your living room reading aloud with friends.

There were no real standout performances though Corey Bradberry as Scrooge did a credible job weaving a thread of continuity throughout the production. The rest of the cast was more than adequate but really broke no new ground nor did they really rise to the level of any of the well-known movie versions or other well regarded stage adaptations.

Still, I do not fault Theatre in the Dark for taking a stab at this. After all, live theater is about having your crack at stepping into the skin of various characters and seeing what it’s like to be them.

This is an ensemble production with each of the actors Sarah Althen, Kathleen Puls, Mack Gordon, and Corey Bradberry playing several roles. The story was adapted and directed by Mack Gordon, featuring original music by Jake Sorgen with sound design by Gordon.

The danger of doing a classic is akin to being a cover band.  If you do not play exactly like the original you will be criticized for not being an exact replica. The other option is to be completely original so it is clear you are doing something fresh.

In this case, think Bill Murray’s version or the Mr. Magoo cartoon version, that has become a classic in its own right.

Unfortunately this company really did neither so the question becomes why choose this version over a number of other options? The main reason is the audio aspect.

If you or your kids have not experienced a radio drama you might find this a refreshing option. If the listener has no previous experience with the play they will be relieved of the burden of comparison.

Finally, Theater in the Dark offers a pay as you please option so it’s a great way to try something new while supporting smaller theater companies during the stay-at-home-period.

To be clear I did not dislike this performance but would put it into the realm of a very good reading as opposed to a thoughtfully well-crafted production. If you’re home with the kids, consider this as a way to develop listening skills sitting in the dark and enjoy some peaceful quiet time together.

Interestingly, the cast is simultaneously in Chicago, Philadelphia and Vancouver which expands the notion of live theater. The Internet performance is delivered via Zoom with the help of stage manager/sound engineer Cory Bradberry.

I listened via an iPad with amplified computer speakers connected via an analog cable which allowed me to easily adjust the volume in the room. There is no picture to be concerned with so screen sharing is basically a useless option. Also be forewarned that screen sharing via Zoom in most cases will not broadcast the audio so keep it as simple as possible by using a tablet or computer.

Theatre in the Dark is offering Live online performances of “A Christmas Carol” through December  24, 2020. Running time is about 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are available at www.theatreinthedark.com.  For info only (no ticketing), call (312) 285-0314.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Reno Lovison

 

A broader Christmas Carol message

Manual Cinema A Christmas Carole (Photo courtesy of Manual Cinema)
Manual Cinema A Christmas Carole (Photo courtesy of Manual Cinema)

3 stars

Manual Cinema, an innovative company that blends story-telling, puppetry, actors, music and sound to tell a story, mixes Charles Dickens’ moralistic holiday tale with current phrases and crises in its premiere of “Manual Cinema A Christmas Carol.”

Given the current pandemic challenges, instead of presenting the show at Court Theatre where the company did “Frankenstein” or Chopin Theatre for “End of TV, its take on the Dickens’ story streams live to audiences per performance from Manual Cinema’s Chicago studio.

An early clue that audiences will be experiencing more than the basic story of Scrooge’s enlightenment, are the cards on a mantel behind actor/puppeteer N. LaOuis Harkins who introduces the story as Aunt Trudy and is the voice behind each character. The cards range from holiday wishes to get well and condolences.

“Trudy,” married to Joe whom she said died of COVID in August, is going through her late husband’s story-telling box of puppets. Her seemingly drawn-out reluctance to use them and present the tale for family members on zoom, makes sense at the end.

But the story needs to unfold so no ALERT here. Just appreciate the tale’s broader message. Oh, and have Kleenex handy for the graveyard scene.

The show is 60 minutes followed by chat time with performers. For tickets and more information visit Manual Cinema/Christmas Carol.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Jodie Jacobs

A Dickens of a story

 

One-Man A Christmas Carol by Writers Theatre (Photo by Joe Mazza)
One-Man A Christmas Carol by Writers Theatre (Photo by Joe Mazza)

3 1/2 stars

So many Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to see On Demand, stream live or hear, such as Goodman Theatre’s audio drama. And so little time. Wait! With the pandemic still going on there is plenty of time to catch a couple more interpretations.

Among them is Writers Theatre’s “One-Man A Christmas Carol” acted, narrated and adopted by Artistic Director Michael Halberstam, reviewed here. Another one that will be reviewed tomorrow is Manual Cinema’s “Christmas Carol.”

Because each production is different and brings the strengths of a professional team, all three shows merit time and ticket. Given Dickens’ adroit telling of his moralistic, ghostly novella, “A Christmas Carol” is a story worth repeating.

Viewers of the Writers Theatre’s show, produced in collaboration with HMS Media and directed by Stanton Long, are sure to get caught up in Halberstam’s portrayal of Scrooge, the ghosts, the Cratchit family and assorted other characters.

Background projections occasionally add interest to the telling although it would work as well as a radio show. What does work for me is that, though annotated, Halberstam does use Dickens’ original words and phrases.

What I didn’t expect, considering how often I’ve seen different productions of “A Christmas Carol,” is to tear up during the ghost of what’s to come’s visit to the Cratchit household.

That poignant scene really showcased Halberstam’s fine acting.

For ticket and other information visit Writers Theatre or call (847) 242-6000.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Jodie Jacobs

A modern spin on a classic toy story

The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre (Photo courtesy of Lookingglass)
The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre (Photo courtesy of Lookingglass)

3 stars

“Steadfast Tin Soldier” is reprised for the third year (this year online) by Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company.

The plotline devised by nineteenth century Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen might be described to a modern audience as Toy Story 1.0.

It is difficult to say when or where the idea of a theatrical performance about the secret life of toys may have begun. There is of course The Nutcracker Suite, another perennial favorite and no doubt others that predate them both.

In this toybox tale a damaged tin soldier falls in love with a beautiful dollhouse ballerina who is already evidently in a relationship with the somewhat hideous jack-in-the-box.

An unfortunate turn of events sends our soldier hero on an odyssey that separates the lovers until their surprising reunion with a shocking twist.

This version written and directed by Mary Zimmerman presented as a pantomime, has no dialog, relying heavily on the physicality of the actors to tell the story.

The five person cast features Lookingglass Ensemble Members Kasey Foster (Ballerina) and Anthony Irons (Goblin), with Joe Dempsey (Nursemaid), John Gregorio (Rat), and Alex Stein (Steadfast Tin Soldier). In addition to their primary roles each member plays a variety of subordinate roles as well.

Joe Dempsey and John Gregorio are responsible for much of the comedic action with the highlight being a romantic encounter between a Fish Monger and the Nursemaid.

Foster and Irons perform an amusing, slow-motion skirmish as two boys who tussle over the found toy soldier with choreography by Tracy Walsh.

The evocative original music score composed by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert is skillfully executed by Leandro López Várady (Music Director/Piano), Greg Hirte (Violin), Juan Horie (Cello), and Constance Volk (Flutes) in a post-modern genre with jazz elements. The effect is reminiscent of a silent movie with the music setting the tempo of the action and providing emotional accents.

There are no songs per se but rather a series of instrumental vignettes and therefore no lyrics except for the finale number that sort of sums up the moral of the story for those who might be a bit confounded by the various goings on.

My first impulse is to say that this is a non-traditional performance but then I realize that is only true in a modern sense. Actually this production is full of ancient stage craft borrowed from a number of traditions.

There is of course pantomime, music, puppetry large and small designed by Chicago Puppet Studio, circus choreography by Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, and body movement that can certainly be included in the realm of dance, though this is not a ballet to be sure.

Virtually any person from essentially any language group or culture would be able to understand the essence of this story that portrays basic archetypes experiencing universal human relationships.

Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic along with her team provide a kaleidoscope of color and bold fabrics that would rival a Venetian masquerade. Dramatic oversized hats and body silhouettes give the production a kind of Alice in Wonderland feel that accentuates the fantasy.

A two legged deer in fancy dress offers a dreamlike effect with a touch of absurd elegance. The giant baby head and hands, big eyeball peeping inside the dollhouse and anthropomorphized rat, all contribute to the phantasmagorical quality that borders on a nightmare or at least an oversized children’s book.

As a kind of caution, it is fair to say that by some modern standards the characters of the steadfast soldier and ballerina might be regarded as predictable and cliché so should be considered within the context of the time in which they were written.

It is also important to remember that Anderson like the Brothers Grimm did not avoid tough subjects that warned of the harshness and unfairness of life. After all Anderson wrote of a ballerina whose feet are cut off to break a dancing spell and a little match girl who ironically dies in the cold.

At a time when we are all challenged by outside forces, when little boys are taught that they do not always have to be “good soldiers” and little girls can be something other than ballerinas, this could be a good catalyst for discussion about gender roles and in the age of COVID, how each of us deal with adversity and even death.

The entire performance is notably only one hour long which combined with the amusing storyline and delightful theatrics makes this an ideal first experience for younger or otherwise uninitiated theater goers.

I am sure it was originally conceived to capture the attention of Michigan Avenue shoppers who would be happy to have a short respite to round off their holiday excursion before returning home.

However, I think it is fair to say that though an entertaining visual spectacle, this is not exactly a feel good holiday story.

Parents who bring children with curious minds should be prepared for some difficult questions relating to the fate of the main characters.  I would not recommend this for children under twelve.

The production holds up well as an Internet presentation though I suggest trying to get it displayed on the largest screen possible, and perhaps most importantly, with the best sound system you have available. Both of these factors are likely to enhance your enjoyment especially if you are viewing it with other people.

I briefly previewed the performance on my desktop with a 19” monitor and some decent speakers but watched the entire production via Roku using the Stellar app on a 32” TV (sitting pretty close) with headphones that provided exceptional sound. This proved to be quite an effective experience.

If you have a large screen TV 50” or more with a good sound-bar or speakers I think you will be quite pleased when viewing this via the Stellar app with multiple people.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier runs 1 hour with no intermission through December 27, 2020 online. The production will stream through Stellar which manages ticket validation and program delivery. Tickets and information is available at lookingglasstheatre.org

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Reviewer Reno Lovison is maintaining social distance and enjoying the intersection of theater and technology.

Tis the season for ‘A Christmas Carol’

Larry Yando as Scrooge in Goodman theatre's audio version of 'A Christmas Carol' (Photo courtesy of Goodman Theatre
Larry Yando as Scrooge in Goodman theatre’s audio version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ (Photo courtesy of Goodman Theatre

3 stars

Goodman Theatre’s long-running holiday favorite opened Dec. 1, not as a play on Goodman’s Albert Theatre’s stage or a show filmed live to be seen on certain dates or a zoomed show to watch now and later.

Running through Dec. 31 at carol.goodmantheatre.org, Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol” in 2020 is a fresh, 80-minute production performed as an audio play.

Starring Larry Yando who after years of portraying Dicken’s transformation of mean miser into giddy, generous gent, can most assuredly do Scrooge’s bah humbug in his sleep. Directed by Jessica Thebus, he and the rest of the cast bring the tale to life even without visuals.

However, it does matter how you listen. When first tried on my computer, I had trouble hearing all the words distinctly pronounced. But when tried later on facebook on my iPhone, it sounded much better. So, tip 1: If happy with the sound don’t worry but if not, try other devices. I didn’t catch all the narration when originally listening. But since the show does not have visuals so you know what is happening, the narration is very important. Chicago actor, writer, director Andrew White does an excellent job guiding listeners through the actions as the show’s narrator.

Secondly, although I do listen to music and news on the radio I felt I needed more to get into the personality of the recording and the  actors doing the show. So, tip 2: Before clicking on the show go to carol/goodman, click on The Play at the top and scroll down to the Behind-the-Scene trailer.

One last thought. The sound effects are excellent as is the music but I needed some magic. So, tip 3: Visit A Christmas Carol/35th Anniversary/ you Tube to learn about the show’s beginning, a director’s and Yando’s thoughts on the story and see a couple of short clips.

Enjoy the retelling in a different way.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago.

Jodie Jacobs

Related: Chicagotheaterand arts.com/around-town

A Rockefeller you likely did not know

John D. of Standard Oil Co. fame and son, John D. “Junior” of Rockefeller Center note, are the philanthropists and personages who often come to mind when the name Rockefeller is said.

Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick (Southern Illinois University Press photo)
Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick (Southern Illinois University Press photo)

But mention Edith, daughter of John D. Senior, and the reaction is likely to elicit a blank. However, Edith who grew up in a household that only favored the male side in education and business, is worth knowing.

In her recently published book, Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick, Andrea Friederici Ross uncovers a woman who in spite of lack of family support and appreciation, learned several languages so she could study philosophy and psychiatry as originally written. She passed along the teachings of Carl Jung.

Edith became a patron of the arts  with husband Harold McCormick (son of Cyrus McCormick) that included the Chicago Grand Opera, a company that predated the Lyric. She was also instrumental in forming the Krenn & Dato real estate company and founding Brookfield Zoo.

It was the Brookfield property that started Ross on her “Edith” journey about 10 years ago.

“I became interested in Edith when I wrote Brookfield Zoo’s history book Let the Lions Roar, because she donated the land that started the zoo. In fact, the first line of that book is “An unusual woman made Brookfield Zoo possible,” Ross said during an email-interview.

Andrea Friederici Ross (Photo courtesy of Ross)
Andrea Friederici Ross (Photo courtesy of Ross)

“Unusual woman” is only a hint to whom readers will meet in the book. It is filled with family members and recipients of her patronage who have their own views of Edith and her spending. She acquired costly jewels and antiques but was also interested in affordable housing for young, first-time home buyers.

Readers may well believe some of her actions are the result of what is considered expected of a wealthy woman. The book reveals Edith’s and her family’s ideas on women’s and men’s places in society that may explain the neuroses that plagued her and other family members.

When asked about indications of Edith’s inner feelings when researching her subject’s life and times, Ross said, “For Edith, duty was front and foremost. Whereas in her childhood it was duty to God and parents, Edith later internalized that to be duty to society (entertaining, spending, employing, underwriting). I, personally, do not believe she ever allowed herself to fully experience her emotions.”

The book mentions that Edith believed  she was part of King Tut’s life in an earlier incarnation. After reading Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick, I wonder what or whom she would like to be if she could come back during the 2020s when women appear to be doing better in the gender-discrimination battle.

 

Some Chicago Edith connections

North of Chicago lies an upscale Lake Forest, IL subdivision  known as Villa Turicum. The entry street off Sheridan Road is McCormick Drive. A short way in is Rockefeller Road. Villa Turicum was the 300-acre Italianate summer estate of Edith Rockefeller McCormick.

Nearby is an approximately 200 acre Highland Park, IL neighborhood north of IL Rte 22  known as the Highlands where there are Krenn and Dato Avenues.   Edith’s longtime friend, Edwin Krenn, and Edward Dato,  formed Krenn & Dato, a highly successful, nationally known real estate business backed by Edith until it over expanded.

Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick by Andrea Friederici Ross, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020, $29.95).

Jodie Jacobs

 

 

More holiday gift ideas

Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by J. Jacobs)
Art Institute of Chicago
(Photo by J. Jacobs)

We may yearn to get out of our abodes but given the increase in Covid cases virtual has become a password. To stay safe more holiday shoppers have been looking online for Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and soon, Cyber Monday, deals (which have moved back to Friday and Saturday. But not all gift ideas are through computer and print ads. Shopping online is a chance to be creative.

 

One of a Kind show online

Meet artists during virtual programs. Tour their studios. Find the perfect stocking stuffers. The One of a Kind Show that usually is in theMart (formerly the Merchandise Mart) makes holiday shopping safe and fun this year.

The show is available through Dec. 6, 2020.You can also follow the artists on  Instagram and Facebook and view a daily series of IGTV videos with more artist talks, demos and studio tours.

 

Art Institute of Chicago Shop

The world-famous art museum carries treasures you may not have considered. Just as important, its online museum shop has items for different price ranges.

Check out the Frank Lloyd Wright designs. Look for the Bisa Butler prints and Claude Monet items from the current exhibits. Gifts are categorized from Under $100 to Under $25 and from Best Sellers to Artist and Style.

 

Buy at Buddy

Consider supporting small Chicago businesses through Buddy, a new store founded by the Public Media Institute so that Chicago artists and small businesses can show and sell their wares. It is currently online but will be in the Chicago Cultural Center when Covid restrictions are lifted . Among items found at Buddy are toys, jewelry, wearables, music and publications. For sales, goods and other information visit Buddy/about.

Related: Three Holiday Shopping Ideas

Behind the scenes at Comedy Central

 

At Bell (Photo courtesy of Ulysses Press)
At Bell (Photo courtesy of Ulysses Press)

Working on anything that has the word “comedy” in the job description should be fun and a laugh a minute or at least every 15 minutes.

But unless you are in the cable television business or part of the SNL group (I don’t really have to say what that stands for, right?), you learn by reading Art Bell’s memoir that working on a show or channel devoted to making people laugh is akin to falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. You don’t know what’s behind an innocent-sounding “eat me” lunch invitation sign or an executive’s Cheshire Cat grin.

Having grown up in my dad’s “Mad Men” world of advertising where clients are fickle and public trends change with each phase of the moon, I thought I knew what to expect when picking up Bell’s memoir.

The book was a surprise.

It read like one of the well-plotted mysteries I’ve been enjoying during the Covid crises that has kept me from reviewing shows in person.

A former cable television channel executive who had done everything from finance and marketing to creating and managing shows and channels, Bell takes readers behind the scenes of the tumultuous world he navigated while creating the 24-hour comedy network that became Comedy Central. (*He later joined and became President of Court TV.)

Each turn of his navigation that seemed promising in the beginning of a chapter turned so problematic that you wonder what will happen next. Will the hero find a new route?

Usually, reading a non-fiction book takes me at least a drawn-out week. And I’m a speed reader. Instead, Bell’s memoir was in my “can’t-put-this-down,” can’t-dinner-wait category.

Art Bell Memoir (Photo courtesy of Ulysses Press)
Art Bell Memoir (Photo courtesy of Ulysses Press)

Constant Comedy:  A Memoir by Art Bell. Subtitle: How I started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor. (Ulysses Press Berkeley CA, September 2020.)

Jodie Jacobs