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.

 

An angel gets his wings

‘It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!’

Ian Paul Custer, Dara Cameron, Gwendolyn Whiteside and Brandon Dahlquist in It's A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Ian Paul Custer, Dara Cameron, Gwendolyn Whiteside and Brandon Dahlquist in It’s A Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

What’s undoubtedly the most popular, best-loved holiday movie of all time? Well, here’s a hint: The name George Bailey has become synonymous with Christmas since Frank Capra’s holiday classic first began airing on television during the 1980’s.

Based upon “The Greatest Gift,” a short story privately published in 1945 by Philip Van Doren Stern, this captivating tale of a man who sacrifices all of his own dreams to help his family and friends has now become a timeless classic.

Most audiences will be familiar with the 1946 b&w film which is just about as perfect as anyone can expect. But American Blue Theater’s version takes this classic one step further, especially in this polished, eighteenth anniversary remounting.

When audiences walk into the Stage 773 theatre they’ll step back in time to the Golden Era of Radio. Cast members greet theatergoers with refreshments and ask if you’d care to fill out an audiogram that’ll be read during one of several commercial breaks during the broadcast. These may include birthday greetings, anniversary wishes or other personal messages of love and encouragement.

Before the actual radio play begins, the audience is introduced to the talented eight-member ensemble who play all the roles including supplying the real-life musical commercials, and even provide all the sound effects and incidental music.

Following a short Christmas carol sing-along, the radio play begins. The story has become so familiar that a synopsis isn’t necessary, but if it’s a new Christmas chronicle for theatergoers, then this unique theatrical performance will offer a terrific introduction.

The company also salutes a member of the armed forces in the audience at each performance. The entire evening is, quite simply, just plain heartwarming. Suffice it to say that despite the story’s familiarity, most of the audience was choking back tears by the end.

Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside has expertly guided this eighteenth annual revival of Capra’s beautifully-written piece. She paces her production at such a brisk tempo that audiences barely notice the lack of an intermission in the 90-minute production.

Brandon Dahlquist and John Mohrlein. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Brandon Dahlquist and John Mohrlein. (Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Each of the eight talented ensemble members perform a range of roles with such vocal versatility that, if you close your eyes, you’ll imagine a far larger cast.

This radio adaptation is both faithful to the Capra classic and yet economical, providing every major plot point and subtle nuance from the movie. The show’s performed with energy, humor and pathos.

Brandon Dahlquist captures all the warmth and humor of George Bailey without being an impersonation of Jimmy Stewart.  In addition to guiding this production, artistic director Gwendolyn Whiteside beautifully plays Mary Bailey, practically a dead ringer for the film’s leading lady, Donna Reed. Whiteside also plays several other characters including George Bailey’s loving mother.

The incomparable John Mohrlein offers unbelievable versatility playing, among several roles, both ornery Mr Potter and Clarence, George’s guardian angel. As profit-hungry Potter, he subtly brings to mind America’s current Commander-in-Chief.

Another versatile voice actor is the talented Ian Paul Custer as George’s brother Harry plus a variety of other characters. The charismatic and mega-talented Michael Mahler is not only the show’s emcee and musical director, but he provides the smooth, live piano soundtrack for the radio play, composed by Austin Cook.

Mahler also wrote the clever commercial jingles which he sings with glee, assisted by his wife, the lovely, talented actress/singer, Dara Cameron. She also plays Zuzu, Violet and several other roles in the play

Rounding out this adaptable cast are eloquent James Joseph portraying, among others, Uncle Billy, and Shawn J. Goudie, as an accomplished Foley artist, who provides all of the sound effects for the story.

A nostalgic ambiance envelopes the intimate venue at Stage 773, thanks in part, to Grant Sabin’s rich, gold, red and green velvet holiday setting festooned with colorful wreaths and Christmas trees courtesy of Elyse Dolan’s set dressing and properties design.

The stage is beautifully bathed in mood lighting designed by Katy Peterson and Christopher J. Neville’s authentic-looking 1940’s costumes provide the actors with just the right look.

But much of the warm tenderness of this production must be attributed to the sincerity and commitment of American Blues Theater’s outstanding company of actors.

Thanks to this remarkable ensemble cast, all the residents of Bedford Falls fully emerge in our imagination. Watching this story of one man who admirably sacrifices all of his own ambitions in order to help others is truly inspiring, especially today. Theatergoers may tear up as they witness an angel finally getting his wings.

Frank Capra’s Christmas classic hasn’t looked or sounded this glorious since it first appeared in movie theaters back in 1946. But American Blues Theater’s annual production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” would’ve definitely made Capra proud.

DETAILS: “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!” is an American Blues theater production at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicgo, through Jan. 4, 2020. Running time: 90 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 654-3103 or by visit AmericanBluesTheater.

Colin Douglas

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

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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An overstuffed suitcase of memories

‘Packing’

Packing presented by About Face Theatre at Theater Wit. (Photo courtesy of About Face Theatre)
Packing presented by About Face Theatre at Theater Wit. (Photo courtesy of About Face Theatre)

4 stars

Each of us have lived lives that are filled with significant situations, emotional events and meaningful memories. If we all possessed an eloquent gift for writing, as well as a talent for emotionally honest storytelling, any one of us could probably condense our childhood, adolescence and early adult years into a 90 minute narrative, like this. But few would be as captivating at sharing his life story as Scott Bradley.

Performing on a simple, white square platform that sometimes serves as a blank canvas for Stephen Mazurek’s colorful and evocative projection artwork, Bradley opens his heart and bares his soul in this incredibly moving solo performance of discord and survival.

Scott Bradley has come a long way. Today he wears many hats. Not only a talented actor and playwright, he’s a gifted and empathetic educator, performer and director.

Chicago audiences may recall his off-the-wall genderqueer-rock-puppet-spectacles of “Alien Queen,” “The Carpenters Halloween,” “Mollywood” and “Tran: The Atari Musical.” His wacky holiday musical fantasy, “We Three Lizas,” which premiered a few years ago at About Face Theatre, was later revised and reprized a couple years later, to great delight.

In addition to About Face, Scott’s work has been enjoyed at The Hypcrites, Walkabout Theatre, Hell in a Handbag, Bailiwick Repertory and many other venues. In short, this isn’t Scott Bradley’s first rodeo.

Bradley unpacks his overstuffed suitcase of memories, removing each episode from his life, piece-by-piece, as if they were treasured articles of clothing.

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A new Christmas pantomime tradition

‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’

Cast of The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Cast of The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

4 stars

Returning for a second holiday season at Lookingglass Theatre, Mary Zimmerman’s gorgeous adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story of love and valor warms the heart and nourishes the soul.

From the moment we enter, we’re put in the holiday mood by a curtain transformed into a gigantic Advent calendar.

While four powdered-wigged musicians begin playing in the show’s petite orchestra pit, the cast enters the stage, one-by-one, clothed in Ana Kuzmanic’s delicious, brightly colored, exquisitely detailed costumes. Each character opens one of 25 tiny doors and reacts to the images behind them.

The final door reveals the titular character and the pantomime begins. By the conclusion of the play the audience will understand the significance of each image.

In the first scene, a very young boy opens his Christmas gift. Inside one of the boxes, he discovers a collection of tiny, tin, toy soldiers. One of the soldiers, however, was the last one to be cast from the metal which apparently ran out, so he’s missing a leg.

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Fanfare For the Man in the Mirror

A Man of No Importance

Cast of “A Man of No Importance.” (Photo by Heather Mall)
Cast of “A Man of No Importance.” (Photo by Heather Mall)

4 stars

Mild-mannered, middle-aged Alfie Byrne works as a ticket agent on a Dublin bus. It’s 1964, back when acceptance and equal rights were something only dreamed about by members of the gay community. But Alfie harbors a secret love for Robbie Fay, the handsome, young bus driver with whom he works side-by-side every day.

Unable to share his buried emotions with anyone else, Alfie secretly communes with the spirit of Oscar Wilde, his literary idol and imaginary confidante.

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