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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
It didn’t matter that outside temperatures were diving into the icy teens because inside the Cadillac Palace Theatre, Tuesday, “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” was warming the hearts of families and veterans with “Happy Holidays,” “Count Your Blessings” and “We’ll Follow the Old Man.”
But good as Berlin’s music and lyrics and David Ives and Paul Blakes’ book are, what makes the touring production now playing in Chicago worth its four stars is its talented cast and Randy Skinner’s excellent choreography and direction.
There are the perfectly executed dance numbers by a superb ensemble and the wonderful dancing of Kelly Sheehan as Judy Haynes and Jeremy Benton as Phil Davis. Plus, there is the beautiful voice of Kerry Conte as Betty Haynes and the Martha Raye-style singing and acting of Lorna Luft as Martha Watson.
Who doesn’t love a rousing tap number? If you do, then “White Christmas,” the holiday offering from Munster’s Theatre at the Center, is the holiday song-and-dance show for you.
The musical is the stage adaptation of my mom’s favorite Christmas movie starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Dean Jagger. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas was turned into a stage show in 2000.
Munster’s version stars Matt Edmonds as Bob, Justin Brill as Phil, Casiena Raether as Judy, Erica Stephan as Betty and Neil Friedman as General Waverly.
It follows the story of Bob and Phil, singers who served under “The Old Man” in World War II before gaining fame and fortune as entertainers. Looking for romance, they follow sisters Judy and Betty to Vermont where the women are slated to perform on Christmas Eve.
When Bob and Phil learn that the inn is owned by the General who is facing financial ruin because there’s no snow, they rally the old troops to save him.
Marriott Theatre’s “Oliver!” is among the best productions of a Charles Dickens-based show that, unlike “A Christmas Carol,” has few redeeming factors.
Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, an 1838-39 novel revealing England’s brutal underbelly at the time, contains the excellent “Where is Love?” “As Long as He Needs Me” and “Consider Yourself (one of us)” musical numbers.
The story features Fagin, an aging thief characterized by Dickens as a Jew who teaches youngsters how to pick pockets. However, Marriott has dropped stereotyping the character which is well-portrayed by William Brown as an elderly, caring person who now depends on his possessions and on others to take care of him in his old age.
But its sub-theme of domestic violence has Bill Sikes (Dan Waller), a dangerous adult thief, beating (later murdering) his girlfriend, Nancy, a sympathetic character delightfully interpreted by Lucy Godinez.
It also portrays how Oliver, the son of a high-born, unwed mother fares in an unforgiving society.
The star/s of Marriott’s production are the two young boys who alternately portray Oliver, Kai Edgar and Kayden Koshelev. It doesn’t matter whom you see when you go, they are both outstanding.
A fine, atmospheric mist and Sally Dolembo’s period costumes transports audiences to mid-19th century London.
Directed by Nick Bowling, the acting is on the mark. My problem is not the cast but the musical, itself.
“Oliver!” is at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire, IL, through Dec. 29, 2019. Running time: 2 hrs, 20 min. with one intermission. For tickets and other information visit Marriott Theatre.