‘English’ at the Goodman speaks eloquently about language and identity

Pej Vahdat, Sahar Bibiyan and Roxanna Hopen Radja in “English” at Goodman Theatre. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Highly recommended

When you cannot adequately express yourself with the nuance and clarity of a native speaker, people do not realize that you are actually smart, funny, and kind. Instead, they only hear your imperfect pronunciation and limited vocabulary. You may be assumed to be inferior with little or nothing to offer.

Whether this is one hundred percent true or not, these are some of the fears that plague four adult students and their teacher studying for an English language proficiency exam in Iran.

Witty, insightful, cleverly written and produced, “English” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Hamid Dehghani and performed brilliantly at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

Roya (Sahar Bibiyan) is a youngish grandmother whose son is living in Canada. He wants her to be able to speak English with her granddaughter before she can rejoin the family.

Elam (Nikki Massoud) is a medical student whose insecurity about how people might perceive her heavy accented speech is stifling her progress.

Goli (Shadee Vossoughi) at eighteen is the youngest in the class, basically taking the whole experience in stride and doing her best to achieve her dream of passing the English exam that might be her ticket to a temporary work permit (green card) in America.

Instructor, Marjan (Roxanna Hope Radja) who had spent nine years living in Manchester, England, fears she is losing her proficiency advantage since returning to Iran. She spends much of her time leading the class through amusing word games while insisting that students speak only in English when in class and not lapse into Farsi when frustrated.

Omid (Pej Vahdat), the only male in the class, is the most proficient speaker. He draws ire from Elam and added attention from Marjan who is happy to have someone to speak with.

Pej Vahdat (Omid), left, and Iranian teacher Roxanna Hope Radja, (Marjan) in Goodman Theatre’s “English” by Sanaz Toossi. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

The set design by Courtney O’Neill immediately supports the voyeuristic experience, with the audience literally providing the third wall of the classroom as though we are peeking through a one-way glass. The window on the back wall provides a tantalizing glimpse of the outside world.

We all likely have some experience with immigrants who have learned English as a second language. Most of us have immense respect for their accomplishment and abilities.

Toosi takes this one step further by bringing us into the inner thinking of the members of this class. The show helps us to not only experience the frustrating process of learning a new language but also asks us to consider that language is not simply a matter of exchanging one word for another because your mother tongue is deeply related to your culture, personal identity and sense of self.

Feeling like you are not fully capable of expressing your deepest thoughts and emotions with utmost clarity is like navigating the world with one hand tied behind your back. Additionally, it may make some people feel as if they are rejecting their culture while others who achieve the elusive goal of total proficiency might feel a euphoric sense of accomplishment and pride at being able to straddle two worlds, indeed two ways of thinking.

Details: “English” is at The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL through June 16, 2024. Runtime is about 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information visit goodmantheatre.org or call the box office (312) 443-3800 (noon to 5 PM).

Reviewer: Reno Lovison is a Chicago video marketing professional and volunteer ESL tutor.

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

Luck be a lady

 

Alanna Lovely and the company of "Guys and Dolls" at Drury Lane Theatre. (Brett Beiner)

Alanna Lovely and the company of “Guys and Dolls” at Drury Lane Theatre. (Photo by Brett Beine

Recommended

Frank Loesser’s songs make Drury Lane’s production of “Guys and Dolls” work as a night out.

And hearing Erica Stephan sing in the role of missionary Sarah Brown is worth the price of admission. She is particularly right at home in her tipsy Havanna foray as she rings out “If I were a bell.”

That’s the good news.

But nice as the ensemble with Nicely Nicely Johnson (Nkrumah Gatling) is in “Sit down You’re Rocking the Boat” near the end, the production left me wishing it had moved along with more excitement and vigor.

The book, by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows based on some Damon Runyon stories, pulls up Guys and Dolls’ memorable, (or at least familiar sounding to oldsters) characters as Nathan Detroit played by Jackson Evans, Sky Masterson interpreted by Pepe Nufrio and burlesque performer Miss Adelaide, perfectly taken on by Alanna Lovely.

Just as the songs such as “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” that Sara and Sky sing will sound familiar along with “Take Back Your Mink” and “More I Cannot Wish You.”

 

Pepe Nufrio and Erica Stephan stand on stage in 'Guys and Dolls.'

Professional gambler Sky Masterson (Pepe Nufrio) woos Sarah Brown (Erica Stephan), the prim Save-A-Soul missionary in “Guys and Dolls” at Drury Lane Theatre. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

Director/choreographer Dan Knechtges’ revival leans more towards “camp” than the classic musical comedy seen in the show’s past film and stage versions.

But this show does revolve around “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.”

Details: “Guys and Dolls” is at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL through June 9, 2024. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and more information visit Drury Lane Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows around town visit Theatre in Chicago.

 

Nine to Five: A Retro Romp or Cautionary Reminder?

RECOMMEND

Three overworked, underpaid and unappreciated 1970’s era office secretaries seize the opportunity to kidnap and blackmail their domineering misogynist male boss in an effort to change the power dynamic and improve their working environment.

“9 to 5: The Musical” playing at the Metropolis Theater in downtown Arlington Heights is a kind of women’s lib version of “How to Succeed in Business.” The story is based on the popular 20th Century Fox (non-musical) picture starring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda.

Dolly Parton is responsible for the music and lyrics including the perennial favorite 9 to 5 theme song from the movie. None of the songs for this production stray far from her introspective country style.

In this version, Doralee (Janelle Sanabria) firmly has her roots in the over-the-top persona of Dolly Parton featuring big boobs and big hair with a large dose of southern charm. Sanabria has captured the essence of this Parton inspired pivotal character who has been accused of sleeping with the boss and as a result is alienated from her coworkers.

Violet (Melissa Crabtree) is tired of being overlooked for her much deserved promotion, while new hire Judy (Savannah Sinclair) a recently divorced woman with no work experience is just trying to find her way in this strange new environment.

The tyrannical and chauvinist boss, Mr. Hart (David Gordon- Johnson) takes every opportunity to demean and make sexual advances towards virtually every woman within his domain in an effort to maintain his authority and the male dominated power structure.

While his wife is away on a four week cruise the trio of women manage to hog tie and subdue Hart in his home. Signing his name to numerous memos, they manage to dispatch his trusted administrative assistant Roz (Dani Goldberg) on an extended journey of her own while they commence making much appreciated changes and improvements to staff morale and office productivity.

Goldberg gets to enjoy the spotlight while professing love for the boss in a humorous campy (and very tame) striptease number.

Musical Director Harper Caruso and orchestra, though out of sight, keep the tempo upbeat and energetic. This is a fast-paced romp full of vintage technology allusions and office space humor. Director Landree Fleming and the entire cast does a great job of keeping the story moving forward through several full company musical numbers featuring choreography of Jenna Schoppe assisted by Quinn Simmons which is executed admirably.

The scenic design of Eleanor Kahn is minimal but effective. The very high backwall makes the workers feel small and insignificant in relation to the big corporation they represent. The array of LED fluorescent style fixtures suspended overhead were appreciated and did not go unnoticed further contributing to the sense of place.

Keep in mind that the premise of this show was conceived more than 30 years ago when the idea of a somewhat violent workplace takeover by disgruntled employees, involving a gun, might be considered so outlandish as to be humorous. It was a grim dark humor fantasy. In this case it all works out fine for everyone with little or no harm done.

The point being made is that women are an integral part of the workplace, capable of higher order thinking and not simply flesh and blood machinery. It may be difficult for some younger people today to consider how prevalent this thinking was prior to the 1980s and that the glass ceiling for women was very real.

This show on some level seems archaic and simply a retrospective romp but it also serves as a cautionary tale, a reminder that chauvinist and misogynist thinking still prevails in some circles and there are those who would love to turn back the clock.

DETAILS: “9 to 5: The Musical” is at the Metropolis, 111 W Campbell St., Arlington Heights, IL 60005 through May 26, 2024. Runtime is about 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and information visit metropolisarts.com or call (847)577-2121.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit  Theatre in Chicago

Evidence indicates ‘Judgement Day’ a hilarious success

 

Jason Alexander (left) is attorney Sammy Campo trying to get into heaven and Daniel Breaker, right, is the well-meaning Father Michaein, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Judgment Day” by Rob Ulin. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Highly Recommended

Scurrilous self-serving scumbag attorney Sammy Campo (Jason Alexander) seeks redemption after an encounter with an angel (Candy Buckley) during a near-death experience, in “Judgment Day” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Hoping to earn enough points to offset his past indiscretions and avert the torments of Hell, Campo is aided by Father Michael (Daniel Breaker) an anguished, faith challenged, Catholic Priest.

While his skeptical secretary Della (Olivia D. Dawson) does her part to help find charity cases for him to represent, Campo himself attempts to make amends with his estranged wife (Maggie Bofill) and son (Ellis Myers).

Guided by the premise that he will be judged by his deeds rather than what he actually believes Campo and Father Michael begin to explore the essence of morality, what it means to be a good person, and the very fundamentals of faith.

This is what sets up the primary conflict in the story as both Campo and Father Michael, with guidance from local Monsignor (Michael Kostroff), struggle to accomplish their task to do good, but in a way that is not in conflict with their understanding of Catholic doctrine.

Playwright Rob Ulin has skillfully wrapped this rather weighty philosophical discussion inside a fast-paced scenario of virtually non-stop humor. The joke riddled dialogue belies Ulin’s more than 30-year career in the world of television sitcoms learning at the knee of legendary writer/producer Norman Lear.

Jason Alexander in spite of his impressive accomplishments is still best known for his role as the morally ambiguous George Castanza from TV’s “Seinfeld” which undoubtably informs this role. Campo on some level is everything George, who was always looking for an angle, hoped he would grow up to be.

Ulin’s potty mouth dialogue and off-color humor both implied and explicit tumble effortlessly from Alexander’s lips with a naturalness that is funny and acceptable in a way that actually endears you to a character that should be reviled.

Instead, we find ourselves rooting for the underdog and cheering on his success in spite of what are still some otherwise underhanded means to an end.

This world premiere comedy is a thought provoking but thoroughly entertaining production with several guaranteed laugh-out-loud moments from a very capable cast.

DETAILS: “Judgement Day” is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier through May 26, 2024. Run time is 2 hours including an intermission. For tickets and more information visit chicagoshakes.com.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

Tony award nominations announced

 

When the 77th Tony Award Nominations were announced this week it turned out that Alicia Keys’ semi-autobiographical, jukebox musical, “Hell’s Kitchen,” for which she wrote the music and lyrics, and a play by David Adjimi about a rock band recording its album, took top honors with each receiving 13 nominations. 

The awards ceremony will take place at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, June 16, hosted by Oscar winner Ariana DeBose.

Here are the shows nominated for Best Musical, Best Play and also Best Leading Actor and Best Leading Actress in a play. 

Shows that qualified for a nomination opened between April 28, 2023 and April 25 of this year, 2024.  

Here are nominees for best new play and musical plus best actor and actress. For the full list visit Tony nominations.

Best New Play

“Jaja’s African Hair Braiding”

“Mary Jane”

“Mother Play”

“Prayer for the French Republic”

“Stereophonic”

 

Best New Musical

“Hell’s Kitchen”

“Illinoise”

“The Outsiders”

“Suffs”

“Water for Elephants”

 

 Best Leading Actor in a Play

William Jackson Harper, “Uncle Vanya”

Leslie Odom Jr., “Purlie Victorious”

Liev Schreiber, “Doubt”

Jeremy Strong, “An Enemy of the People”

Michael Stuhlbarg, “Patriots”

 

Best Leading Actress in a Play

Betsy Aidem, “Prayer for the French Republic”

Jessica Lange“Mother Play”

Rachel McAdams, “Mary Jane”

Sarah Paulson, “Appropriate”

Amy Ryan, “Doubt”

Jodie Jacobs

 

RhinoFest is back

 

(L to R) Holly Holsinger and Claudia Cromly in MARIE CURIE HORROR STORY as part of Rhinoceros Theater Festival 2024. (Photo by Bob Perkos)

 

If you used to look forward to seeing the shows of Rhinoceros Theater Festival, (RhinoFest) or if you just are interested in creative theater and performances, mark May 25-June 30, 2024, on the calendar.

Also, write in the tickets and more information date of May 6. Tickets are pay-what-you-can with a $20 suggested price.

Originally instigated by some of the Bucktown Arts Fest folk as a two-day add-on, it has grown over the years. RhinoFest has been adding more days and been held at more or different neighborhood sites. It also moved to different months.

This year, for its 35th festival, it will be held at six locations throughout the Chicago area from the end of May to end of June and feature more than 50 shows ranging from new plays and works in progress to concerts and revivals.

The 2024 festival will start with a Full Moon Vaudeville concert 7 p.m. on May 25 at Facility Theatre, (1138 N. California Ave) with an art/folk/cabaret act featuring The Crooked Mouth.

Locations: Facility Theatre, 1138 N. California Ave. in Humboldt Park, Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. in River West, Labyrinth Arts Club, 3658 N. Pulaski Ave. in Irving Park; Perceptions Theater, 1825 East 79th St. in the South Shore neighborhood; Experimental Sound Studio, 5925 N. Ravenswood Ave. in the Ravenswood neighborhood and Women and Children First Bookstore 5233 N. Clark St. in the Andersonville neighborhood.

For more information visit RhinoFest.com

Jodie Jacobs

 

 

 

Oh Baby

 

Pam (Katie Engler), Arlene (Julie Bayer) and Lizzie (Madison Jaffe-Richter)  (Photo by North Shore Camera Club)

 Highly Recommended

Combine perfect casting with the keen insight of director Scott Shallenbarger and you have the superb production of “Baby,” now on stage at Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest.

A high-energy musical that appeared on Broadway in 1983-84, “Baby” explores how three different-aged couples, one in college, one in their thirties, and one who are older with kids in college, react to news that their two-member family might become three.

Lizzie (Madison Jaffe-Richter) and Danny (Ben Ballmer) live together in a basement apartment on a college campus. Instead of suffering from the flu, Lizzie finds out she is pregnant.

Pam (Katie Engler) and Nick (Mark Yacullo) are desperate to have a baby. After missing her period she’s hopeful until she learns the pregnancy diagnosis is a mistake.

 Arlene (Julie Bayer) and Alan (Joe Lehman) are in their 40s and are ready to downsize from their large, older home when Arlene learns during a check-up she is pregnant.

With music by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and a book by Sybille Pearson who developed the story with Susan Yankowitz, the show and songs reflect what the couples want from life.

The whole cast is excellent but kudos particularly go to Ballmer who totally fits his college-age musician role and to Engler who appears so physically fit that if she does get pregnant would undoubtedly give the sports ball baby present she received to her kid, a boy or girl.

Best of all, “Baby” likely will get at least a few members of the audience thinking about love and what they want from life.

DETAILS: “Baby” is at Citadel Theatre, 300 s. Waukegan Rd., Lake forest, IL, now through May 19,2024. Run time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and information visit Citadel Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

The Music Man delivers on his promise

Harold Hill (KJ Hippensteel) and Marian (Alexandra Silber)

Highly Recommended 

You may think you know Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man.”

But it doesn’t matter how often you have seen this “feel-good” family show. Each time you go, you are likely to take away something different, something more than recognizing its popular, fun “Seventy-Six Trombones.”

 It might be a song that you didn’t know was from the show such as “Till there was You” or “Goodnight My Someone” or “Lida Rose.” 

For this reviewer, it was the “book ban” political philosophy mentioned by Marian Paroo, the River City librarian, beautifully portrayed by Alexandra Silber.

Harold Hill (Left center) Looks up and admires Marian (center) who talks and sings about books while a library patron (far left) watches.

 It shouldn’t have been a surprise given that an important theme is how the town changes once Professor Harold Hill arrives.

Played by the highly talented KJ Hippensteel as the fast talking, glib salesman, we watch Hill evolve while the town he had planned to scam, changes as he falls in love with its librarian.

The leads, KJ Hippensteel and Alexandra Silber are excellent but so is the entire cast. 

Kudos particularly go to Kai Edgar who is terrific as the young Winthrop Paroo, Marian’s little brother who suffers from a lisp and is painfully shy until Hill reaches him with a musical instrument. And to Janet Ulrich Brooks who returns to Marriott as Marian’s mother after doing “Beautiful – the Carole King Musical” and “The Cherry Orchard at Goodman Theatre.

Most of all, audiences will be treated to the outstanding choreography of director/choreographer Katie Spelman. Yes, the accompanying cast may have partially been chosen by their dance ability, but all their movements across the stage and interactions with others are innovatively thought out to express the town and characters personalities.   

So, sit back and enjoy or clap in time to “Seventy-Six Trombones” as “The Music Man” enhances your evening.

Details: “The Music Man” is at Marriott Theatre, 10 Mariott Drive, Lincolnshire, now through June 2, 2024. Run time: 2 hrs., 40 minutes with one intermission. For more information and tickets visit Marriott Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

 For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

 

Felder reveals life of Chopin

 

Hershey Felder as Monsieur Chopin - A Play with Music

Pianist/ theater performer Hershey Felder as Chopin

Highly Recommended

Billed as “Hershey Felder as Monsieur Chopin – A play with music,” the title doesn’t even come close to offering clues on what to expect when you enter the Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.

Composer Fryderyk Chopin did speak French and spent some happy times in Paris where he did have a salon. But he was Polish and longed for his country.

Hershey Felder, a highly skilled pianist and performer does become Chopin to take audiences through the composers’ short but momentous life. But to call what is on stage “a play with music” hardly does justice to Felder’s amazing dexterity at the piano and his ability to enthrall audiences with his interpretation of Chopin’ musical compositions and tragic life.

It’s a tale that bounces in both enacting Chopin’s life and playing his compositions from romantic moments to mental illness and from depression to exuberance.

Felder starts by addressing the audience as if they are music students at his salon, 9 Square d’Orleans, Paris on the afternoon of March 4, 1848.

The scenic design is by Felder who carefully researched the time, place and salon. But along with the elegant setting, audiences will also be watching the wall behind him where projections change to what is going on in Poland and Paris thanks to production manager Erik Carstensen’s excellent video Design. 

Directed by Joel Zwick, Chopin’s music and Felder’s “book” or “play” if you want to call it that, “Hershey Felder as Monsieur Chopin” provides an extraordinary glimpse into the life of a famous composer that is arguably little known beyond his compositions.

Felder is also known for his performances as other composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Ludwig von Beethoven. 

Details: “Hershey Felder as Monsieur Chopin” is at  Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL April 10 through May 12, 2024. Running time: between 90 and 110 minutes (depends on questions from the audience) with no intermission. For tickets and more information visit Writers Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit  Theatre in Chicago

Oh what a night with Jersey Boys

 

Jersey Boys

Highly Recommend

Seeing “Jersey Boys” is about having a great time watching a “jukebox” musical.

“Jersey Boys” must be the hardest working cast on stage in Chicago. This nearly three-hour production, now at the Mercury Theater, is a physical workout for the four primary characters. They perform over 30 musical numbers while walking us through the life and times of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.

The Four Seasons were a Jersey-based rock and roll quartet that appealed nationwide to largely blue collar teens in the 1960s with songs like “Sherry” and “Walk Like A Man.”

Lead singer Frankie Valli with his distinctive falsetto transitioned successfully to the top of the pop charts as a single with “My Eyes Adored You” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” composed by his creative partner Bob Gaudio.

In this Chicago based production, the group’s founder, Tommy DiVito (Adrian Aguilar), starts the narration explaining the tumultuous beginnings of a few street-smart kids with a foggy vision of an exciting future. Tommy says their options were, “the military, the mob or music.”

As the story goes, Tommy became aware of a kid in the neighborhood, with “a voice like an angel.” It was Frankie Castelluccio or Frankie Valli (Michael Metcalf) as he came to be known.

With the help of another neighborhood friend, Joe Pesci (Grant Alexander Brown) – Yes the same guy who went on to become a famous actor – – they were introduced to Bob Gaudio (Andrew MacHaughton) a local musician and songwriter who had a recent hit with “Who Wears Short Shorts?”

The three struggled to find their sound. Ultimately, another old friend, Nick Massi (Jason Michael Evans), joined them and in a moment of inspiration they restructured themselves as the “Four Seasons.” Not inspired by Vivaldi but rather by the name of a bowling alley in New Jersey.

The final character in the puzzle is their record producer and lyricist Bob Crewe (Adam Fane) portrayed here with a good amount of humor as an over-the-top gay man with a great ear for music.

A theme running through the story is the group’s association with local mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Carl Herzog) and the fact that the boys can’t quite shake their Jersey roots.

This manifests as Tommy’s desire for largely undeserved respect, and a quest to find short cuts or easy money that he evidently felt was what led to the stature and apparent success of figures like Gyp.

The other side of the “Italian Jersey code” was a sense of honor which Valli took very seriously and is behind his arguably over developed sense of loyalty and an admirable adherence to his word.

Aguilar’s performance as Tommy carries the first act with his charming tough-guy persona. Grant Alexander Brown as Pesci and Adam Fane as Crewe interject much of the comic relief throughout the production.

MacHaughton as Gaudio lets his presence be known with an outstanding strong delivery of his first number, “Cry for Me,” and later on in “Oh What a Night.”

The weight of the production, of course, falls on the shoulders of Michael Metcalf as Frankie Valli who does an outstanding job on every level.

We see the character transition from a naïve young man to a global superstar with his own demons and life challenges. Valli’s well known falsetto is not easy, if not nearly impossible, to duplicate, but Metcalf manages it admirably.

The entire support ensemble does yeomen’s work keeping the high energy, fast-paced storyline going. Kudos specifically to Eric A. Lewis who plays Barry Belson and others who belts out a few high notes of his own.

One of the highlights of this production is the terrific orchestra led by Linda Medonia (keyboards) with Justin Kono (percussion), Jonathan Golko (bass), Samuel Shacker (guitar), Cara Strauss (reeds), and Greg Strauss (trumpet).

Jersey Boys seems as much like a great concert as it is a play with a substantial and interesting book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.

Whether you are coming to this as a nostalgic experience or you’re new to the music of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons you will be in for an entertaining event suitable for all ages (PG-17 for language).

Details: Jersey Boys at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago, IL, through May 19, 2024. Running time is about 3 hours with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets and information visit mercurytheaterchicago.com or call (773) 360-7365.\

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit TheatreinChicago