‘Grease’ returns to the not so golden high school days

 

The Burger Palace Boys and car in 'Grease' at Marriott Theatre. (Liz Loren photo)
The Burger Palace Boys and car in ‘Grease’ at Marriott Theatre. (Liz Loren photo)

3 1/2 stars

Director Scott Weinstein has chosen a cast that works together beautifully in Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s hit musical, “Grease,” a two-hour snapshot of late 1950’s Chicago-area (William Howard Taft High School) teenagers dealing with peer pressure, physical attraction and values.

Named after youth who called themselves greasers, the musical looks in on the lives of two groups at fictional Rydell High School, the Burger Palace Boys who sport leather jackets and their girl friends, the Pink Ladies. Nerds, cheerleaders and teachers also put in appearances.

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‘Whisper House’ needs to kick-up the volume.

Whisper House (Black button eyes photo)
Whisper House (Black button eyes photo)

2 1/2 stars

After his fighter pilot father is killed during WWII and his emotionally despondent mother is deemed incompetent, young Christopher (Leo Spiegel) is sent to live with his Aunt Lily (Kate Nawrocki), a lamp tender in a haunted lighthouse in Maine.

Since before the war, Aunt Lily has employed Yasuhiro (Karmann Bajuyo), a Japanese-American, as a kind of helper and all-around handyman. It becomes clear that over three years together the two have formed a bond that transcends their working relationship.

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Theater Week and more

 

Theater venues range from Chicago's historic Water Works (top left) to the new The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier, bottom right. (J Jacobs photo)
Theater venues range from Chicago’s historic Water Works (top left) to the new The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier, bottom right. (J Jacobs photo)

Chicago Theater and Arts coverage of what to look forward to in 2020 that had started with Three fun festivals and shows, continues with what’s on stage.

First, there’s a chance to see some Chicago area productions at bargain prices thanks to Chicago Theatre Week, Feb. 13-23. But because the shows will be $30, $15 or less during this special week, tickets go fast.

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Joseph struts his dreamcoat at Cahn Auditorium

 

Joseph at Music Theater Works. (Brett Beiner photo)

3 stars

“Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is the 2019 holiday fashion choice for Music Theater Works in Evanston and swan song of retiring stage director Rudy Hogenmiller.

The upbeat Vegas style variety show extravaganza commonly known as “Joseph” is – and in my mind – the least refined of the blockbuster musicals of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice.

None-the-less, it enjoys wide acclaim and provides an evening’s worth of solid cheerful entertainment.

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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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‘Burning Bluebeard’ a tragic Christmas story

Porchlight Music Theatre. (Photo Michael Courier)
Burning Bluebeard at Porchlight Music Theatre. (Photo Michael Courier)

3 stars

 “Burning Bluebeard” literally comes alive in front of a scorched proscenium arch on a ruined stage depicting the aftermath of an inferno that destroyed the Iroquois Theater in Chicago (set design by Jeff Kmiec based on the original design of Lizzie Bracken).

The Ruffians with director Halena Kays and choreographer Ariel Triunfo have devised a clever way to tell this story based on an actual 1903, tragic event that claimed the lives of 600 theater patrons, many of them children and their mothers, attending a Christmastime performance of a popular Broadway blockbuster entitled “Mr. Bluebeard.”

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Renee Fleming shines a light in ‘Piazza’

 

Solea Pfeiffer and Renée Fleming in LThe Light in the Piazza. (Liz Lauren photo)
Solea Pfeiffer and Renée Fleming in The Light in the Piazza. (Liz Lauren photo)

 

3stars

No question that soprano Renée Fleming, an opera superstar who has sung leading ladies from Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” to Nettie Fowler in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” is a fine fit as Margaret Johnson in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ “The Light in the Piazza.”

Her remarkable voice, joyfully greeting  Florence  in the opening scene, heartbreaking in “Dividing Day” following a phone call back home when she realizes her own marriage lacks love, and later swelling with a renewed understanding of love versus risks in her final song, “Fable,” makes going to this production at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House worth attending.

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Top Chicago shows list for 2019

 

Of course, theater audiences want different things before going ahead to spend money and time on a show. Some folks prefer musicals, others like Shakespeare and some gravitate to shows that are different or particularly creative. Because opera is also dramatic theater that requires excellent acting, compelling story lines and fine voices, we include Lyric Opera productions when applicable.

Here is Chicago Theater and Arts reviewers’ list of favorite productions seen during 2019 which was designated by the City of Chicago and the League of Chicago Theatres as the Year of Chicago Theatre.

Jersey Boys at the Auditorium Theatre
Jersey Boys at the Auditorium Theatre

Francine Pappadis Friedman

Jersey Boys at the Auditorium Theatre in April, 2019. I headlined it: ‘Oh, what a night!” Amusing dialogue was interspersed with tremendous songs by four guys, the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons who were living in New Jersey. Not only did their songs keep the audience laughing, but even younger audience members were swinging and swaying in their seats. And many of their songs sang about love!

Falsettos” at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in May/June 2019. I headlined it: “Let’s live life through music.” It was a fabulous musical taking place in New York in the 1970s, with a psychiatrist, gay men and women, and a little boy—one of the main characters—who was worried about his father’s sexuality when his parents got divorced. The story moved along with songs and the boy, whose father sang “Father to Son,” that said he’d always be there for him.

From L. Kyrie Courter (Natalie )Keely Vasquez (Diana) David Schlumpf (Dan) and Liam Oh (Gabe) in Next to Normal at Writers Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
From L. Kyrie Courter (Natalie )Keely Vasquez (Diana) David Schlumpf (Dan) and Liam Oh (Gabe) in Next to Normal at Writers Theatre. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Jodie Jacobs

“Next to Normal” at Writers Theatre, Glencoe in June. Writers Theatre unerringly brought to the stage what life is like in a home where a family member is mentally ill. Penned by Brian Yorkey who also did the lyrics and with music by Tom Kitt, the show took three Tony awards in 2009. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama because even though it has highly expressive musical numbers, it is not a feel-good musical.

“Oslo” a Timeline Theatre production at the Broadway Playhouse in October, brilliantly revealed the behind the scenes negotiations in Norway that led up to the famed handshake on the White House lawn between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat in 1993. What “Oslo,” the multi-award-winning play by J. T. Rogers does is introduce audiences to Mona Juul, superbly acted by Bri Sudia whose sensible but passionate portrayal of the Norwegian diplomat who initiated the behind the scenes action, glides from serious to charming to comic, and to Scott Parkinson who as facilitator Rød-Larsen has the difficult task of making all the players in the sensitive negotiations, look good.

Don Giovanni” at the Lyric Opera House in November and December is an 18th century Mozart opera in perfect tune with #MeToo times. If you knew before seeing Lyric’s outstanding production of “Don Giovanni” that (Il dissouto punita, ossia il Don Giovanni), translates as “The Rake Punished, namely Don Giovanni “ (also The Libertine Punished), you would have some idea that the opera was not about a lover but about a powerful man who felt entitled to take sexual liberties. However, directed by Robert Falls, artistic director at Goodman Theatre, the Lyric production skillfully makes the comic moments funnier, the sexual attempts more offensive, the violence more dramatic and the punishment more tumultuous.

 

Sean Higgins and Marie Weigle in International Falls.
Sean Higgins and Marie Weigle in International Falls. (Photo by Katie Reynolds)

Reno Lovison

“International Falls” by Agency Theater Collective and End of the Line Production at the Nox Arca in August. It was an intimate play with truthful dialog that was well acted.

“My Life as A Country Song” by New American Folk Theatre at Chief O’Neill’s in October. It had very good original music.

 

Huber Marionettes Gypsy Dancer. (Photo courtesy of Huber Marionettes)
Huber Marionettes Gypsy Dancer. (Photo courtesy of Huber Marionettes)

Pamela McKuen

My favorite is a theatrical event: the 3rd Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. More than 100 performances of 24 shows were given by professional puppeteers from 11 countries at 19 venues. I had the privilege of seeing “Ajijaak on Turtle Island,” the story of a young whopping crane who was accidentally separated from her parents during her first migration. Along the way to unification, she learned valuable life-lessons about herself and living in harmony with nature. Puppets of all sizes and styles, their handlers, musicians and dancers interacted seamlessly to present an engaging and unforgettable experience.

 

Matt Crowle and Rachel Klippel in Porchlight Music Theatre's "A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder." (Michael Courier photo)
Matt Crowle and Rachel Klippel in Porchlight Music Theatre’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” (Michael Courier photo)

Mira Temkin

Comedy Kills in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” at Porchlight Music Theatre” mid January to mid March. This was my favorite show of the year because of the fine acting of Jefferson- Award Winner Matt Crowle who plays multiple roles of both men and women. This hilarious musical comedy tells the story of Monty Navarro, a conniving, down-on-his-luck Englishman who finds out he stands to inherit the earldom of Highhurst and substantial wealth if only he could eliminate his eight pesky relatives who stand in his way. Quickly as you can imagine, things start to go awry. But Navarro must keep on his toes with both his mistress and his fiancée… and not get put in jail. And those darting eyes… hysterical!

 

Some theater venues around town. (J Jacobs photo

Well, even though the designation of Year of Chicago Theatre is about over, all of us at Chicago Theater and Arts think we’re lucky to have great theater on stages large and small throughout the Chicago area every year.

We know that the theater season doesn’t go by the calendar year at every venue but no matter how the season is divided, we are very much looking forward to seeing and reviewing the best of 2020.

We wish everyone an interesting theater experience in the new year.

 

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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