The ‘Queen of Disco’

‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’

The Donna Summer musical in Chicago (Photo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago)
The Donna Summer Musical in Chicago (Photo courtesy of Broadway in Chicago)

3 stars

They sound like a good idea on paper, and there have been dozens bouncing around Broadway and on National Tours over the years, but the jukebox musical isn’t much more than a concert with some narrative.

There are two formats in this style of musical theatre. There’s the show that creates an original story and characters, but instead of using new music to further the plot, the songs of one or more artists are featured instead.

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A musical bonbon

‘Emma’

Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer) and Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley) in Emma at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer) and Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley) in Emma at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

4 stars

In an age when social media has usurped our lives, it’s refreshing to visit a time when people actually spoke to each other, and with eloquence. As in all her stories, Jane Austen’s fourth novel is an 1815 comedy of manners set in Georgian-Regency England. The title character, however, is unlike Austen’s other heroines in that Emma is pretty, smart and rich, but also strong-minded, overindulged and rather full of herself.

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The way we were

The cast of The Boys in the Band at Windy City P:layhouse. (Michael Brosilow photo)
The cast of The Boys in the Band at Windy City P:layhouse. (Michael Brosilow photo)

 

‘The Boys in the Band’

4 stars

 

During the repressive 1960’s a gay man was forced to become very secretive about everything. Being “in the closet” was how most homosexuals survived being hassled or, quite often, brutally attacked for what was perceived as a perverted life style. A small percentage of men braved all the hostility and met their peers at the few underground gay bars and bath houses located primarily in certain large cities

Mart Crowley wrote his groundbreaking “Boys in the Band” in response to the prevalent oppressive social attitude of that time. The lives of every homosexual was threatened daily with violence and unfair laws. Gay men continually were the brunt of heterosexual jokes, degradation anger and, although claiming to not be an activist, Crowley felt the need to expose this oppressing milieu to the world through the theatre.

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A Gershwin of a Show

 

An American in Paris at Drury Lane Theatre. (Photo by Brett Beiner)
An American in Paris at Drury Lane Theatre. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

An American in Paris

4 stars

Five years ago this highly-anticipated stage version of the 1951 Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron musical film classic burst upon Broadway. After playing Paris, New York and the West End, and launching a two-year National Tour that played Chicago, we finally have our own regional production.

It is truly magnificent. It’s elegant, romantic, gorgeously produced and beautifully danced and sung. For anyone who adores those classic movie musicals and big, old-fashioned, splashy theatrical productions, this is the show for you.

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A passion to make music

 

 Verboten by The House Theatre on stage at the Chopin Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)
Verboten by The House Theatre on stage at the Chopin Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

Verboten

4 stars

Back in 1982, a group of talented Evanston tweens who shared a close friendship and a mutual love for creating music, formed their own punk rock band.

For the most part, the four youngsters just enjoyed writing songs and playing them in their basement for each other.  But then things changed. Suddenly, they were performing at a bar.

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An overly exuberant new holiday nusical

‘The Land of Forgotten Toys’

Mary-Margaret Roberts and Bre Jacobs in "Land of Forgotten Toys" at Greenhouse Theater. (Zeke Dolezalek photo)
Mary-Margaret Roberts and Bre Jacobs in “Land of Forgotten Toys” at Greenhouse Theater (Zeke Dolezalek photos)

 

2 ½ stars

Amidst a growing crop of holiday productions, Chicago is being treated to yet another new family friendly show. Chirpy, relentlessly over-exuberant and with very few moments of reflection or subtlety, this new holiday musical could really use some layers and a bit of variety. As it now plays in its world premiere, the production is a little overpowering. It’s a little like sitting in the front row of an IMAX theatre: there’s no escape.

Created by the writing team of twins Jennifer and Jaclyn Enchin, the plot of this new play is fresh and fun, although vaguely familiar. The songs are a different matter.

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A holiday reality show

America’s Best Outcast Toy

 

Cast of America's Best Outcast Toy. Photo courtesy of Pride Films and Plays)
Cast of America’s Best Outcast Toy. (Photos courtesy of Pride Films and Plays)

3 stars

A delightfully original holiday musical is debuting in the Buena neighborhood that  is both nostalgic and current. The shift in television entertainment from sitcoms and dramas to reality shows inspired this spunky musical spectacular.

With a brilliant book and lyrics by Larry Todd Cousineau and a catchy score by Cindy O’Connor (the team that wrote the Jeff Recommended “All That He Was”), savvy theatergoers have a brand new holiday alternative available to them, premiering at Pride Films and Plays.

The premise for this 80-minute, one-act is pretty clever. The musical is a mashup between a particular scene inspired by the 1964 cartoon classic, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and the turning points from an array of popular TV reality contests.

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Q Brothers take ‘A Christmas Carol’ to a hip ‘ad-rap-tation’ level

 

Q Brothers Christmas Carol at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.
Q Brothers Christmas Carol at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

4 stars

Victorian author Charles Dickens might be surprised, and maybe a little proud, at how his story about one curmudgeon’s redemption has been adapted for the stage, film, opera and every other form of media.

This production, “Q Brothers Christmas Carol,” back by popular demand at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, has fast become one of the Windy City’s favorite holiday events, especially among younger, hipper audiences. It’s a terrific, cleverly-written and utterly captivating piece of theatre that deserves the high praise it’s received.

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You Gotta Have Friends

Bette: Xmas at the Continental Baths

 

Cailin Jackson as Bette Midler at Mary's Attic. (Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios)
Cailin Jackson as Bette Midler at Mary’s Attic. (Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios)

3stars

Wrap that towel around you, settle back with a stiff one and get ready to enjoy The Divine Miss M, at her holiday best.

Once again it’s the early 1970’s, and we’re at Manhattan’s popular gay bathhouse where Bette Midler, portrayed at Mary’s Attic by the incomparably talented Caitlin Jackson, came to prominence.

Jackson, her tumbler filled with vodka, is cheerfully serving up an hour of some of  Midler’s best, most beloved tunes. She also treats the audience to a few of Bette Midler’s bawdy Sophie Tucker jokes.

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Foxy and Fun and filled with music

Cast of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins presented by Strawdog Theatre. (Photos courtesy of Strawdog)

4 stars

Adapted from Eric Kimmel’s beloved holiday picture book which earned the 1990 Caldecott Honor Award, this 60-minute holiday presentation of “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins”is back for another Hanukkah season at Strawdog Theatre. The production is done almost totally in-the-round and without an intermission.

Written by ensemble member Michael Daily, this is a family entertainment piece that features spirited ethnic music and lyrics by Jacob Combs . A six-member troupe portray an array of characters who play a variety of musical instruments, pack up their belongings and take their act on the road.

Resembling a holiday variety show aimed at younger audiences, this lively, laugh-provoking entertainment is actually a play-within-a-play. Through music, folk dance, puppetry and the audience’s own imagination, the play tells the story of a Jewish folk hero named Hershel of Ostropol.

A clever trickster, kind of like a European version of Anansi the Spider or a witty Hebrew cousin of the American Br’er Rabbit, Hershel is portrayed this year with glee by ensemble member Jack Morsovillo.

He’s supported by a company of multi-talented actors and musicians who include Sarah Bacinich, Brianna Joy Ford, Cohen Kraus, Josh Pennington and Leo Zhu.

After traveling a long way, the troupe stops at a village where they ask the local innkeeper for food and a place to sleep. Penniless, the troupe leader offers to entertain the man and his guests (the audience) in exchange for his generosity. Finally, given the opportunity, the company of players perform the tale of Hershel of Ostropol.

Goblins in “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” at Strawdog Theatre.

In the play, Hershel has discovered a sad little town where Hanukkah is no longer celebrated. The reason for this, the townsfolk lament, is that their temple has been overtaken by goblins who forbid the townspeople to light the Menorah candles.

Hershel accepts the town’s challenge to spend the next eight nights in their temple, whereupon he’ll try to trick the goblins, including the fearsome Goblin King, into lighting the Menorah themselves, and thus bring brightness and holiday joy back to the village.

The production is guided with spirit and sparkle by Lauren Katz. She artfully draws out the skills and strengths from each of her ensemble members and keeps her production in constant motion. Yair Farkas musically directs this talented cast, all  suitably attired in clownish costumes courtesy of Elle Erickson.

Prior to each performance, there are arts and crafts activities in the lobby. Strawdog Theatre’s second helping of the family holiday entertainment is foxy, fun and filled with music. It radiates with  warmth, wonder and humor.

Youngsters already familiar with Eric Kimmel’s delightful picture book will enjoy seeing the story come to life. Learning how Hershel gets the best of a band of bogeymen in order to restore Hanukkah to a town plunged into darkness, is great fun for audiences of all ages.

DETAILS: “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” is at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago, Saturdays and Sundays, Dec.7-29, 2019. Running time: one hour. For tickets and other information visit Strawdog.

 

Colin Douglas

Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting TheatreInChicago.