Now that November is here, normally, (and what is normal anymore?) calendars are full of fall and early winter events. In the Chicago area that means many holiday activities and shows are usually available in person. Some of them are still taking place with timed tickets such as the Botanic Garden’s Lightscape and the Museum of Science and Industry’s Holiday Trees. More on those events next time. But other events will be presented differently this year. Here are a few suggestions.
Chicago Cultural Center and Millennium Park
Take a free tour of the Chicago Cultural Center or the art in Millennium Park.
The tours are offered virtually on demand by volunteers through the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Among stops at the 1897 Cultural Center is the Tiffany dome.
The Millennium Park tour includes work by Anish Kapoor and Kerry James Marshal. For more information and to sign up visit DCASEvolutuntours.
Drive or walk by theMART,
Art on theMart starts again Nov. 12. Among the scenes will be the Joffrey ballet’s images from “the Nutcracker,” and pictures from the Art Institujte of chicago’s M\”Monet and Chicago, “Bisa Butler’s Portraits and “
Arts of Life.
The images will on nightly at 7 and 7:30 through Dec. 30o. For more information visit artonthemart.com.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago”
The American Blues Theater is bringing back its annual production. The classic show runs 80 minutes andcan be viewed virtually. However, it is live so there are specific times, dates and tickets.
“At American Blues, we miss so much of the experience of live theater, including its energy, social nature and ephemeral quality.,” said Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside
“This season, we will bring “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago”entirely live for every scheduled performance. We will also be interactive, bringing our popular audiograms to audience members during every performance.,” said. Whiteside. She added,” This year has been filled with so much uncertainty, but the one thing audiences can count on is the holiday tradition of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Based on Frank Capra’s film, it can be seen online Nov. 12 2020 through Jan. 2, 2021. For tickets and more information visit American Blues Theater.
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.
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.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting theatreinchicago.
Rick Cleveland’s fictionalized docudrama, which is generously laced with comic zingers and one-liners that lighten the subject, imagines a 90-minute get-together between past presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and the current “Leader of the Free World”, Bill Clinton.
The year is 1994 and the setting is a gathering room in the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA, tastefully designed by Grant Sabin and nicely lit by Alexander Ridgers.
The occasion for this meeting is the funeral of President Richard Nixon. Even though these five men would’ve greeted each other on this occasion, it’s unlikely that they spent an hour and a half talking together about so many different topics.
For most of the play, the five living members of this exclusive club banter about each other’s faults and failings and recite the various foreign and domestic policies that each President passed while in office.
The one plot point that runs throughout the play is that President Ford has decided he no longer wants to deliver his portion of Nixon’s eulogy but the other four try to convince him otherwise.
President Regan keeps offering to come to the rescue by volunteering to speak extemporaneously. However, the other men are aware that Reagan is in the onset of Alzheimer’s and understand how disastrous his eulogy might be.
American Blues Theater’s latest offering doesn’t just touch your heart; it enfolds your soul in warmth and caresses you with its humanity. Like the song that one character sings, this production “Shines.”
It’s impossible to experience this folksy musical without shedding a tear or feeling a lump in your throat. At its core, this little musical is a celebration of the simple things in life.
With music by James Valcq, lyrics by Fred Alley and a book co-adapted by both artists from the film of the same name, this is a warm, heartfelt story of redemption and hope. It’s a show we could all use right now because it’s so positive.
The composers eschewed a big, brassy score to instead create a gentle mixture of folk, country, pop and bluegrass spiced with just a touch of Celtic influence
Musical director Malcolm Ruhl brings the lovely score to life on accordion, with Ian Paul Custer on piano, Greg Hirte on violin, Scott Sedlacek on guitar/mandolin and Magdalena Sustere on cello. Although told primarily through its music, the simple tale rejoices in its quieter, more reflective moments.
Director Tammy Mader really understands this musical and demonstrates, once again, why she’s become one of Chicago’s preeminent directors. Staged with sincerity and artistry, Mader takes us on an emotional journey that audiences aren’t likely to forget. She creates some gorgeous stage pictures, allowing movement to flow organically.
Like the season during which the play begins, the attitudes of this small town are initially cold and guarded. But, like Spring, the weather and people in Gilead soon begin to warm up. Color, light and love gradually fill the stage.
In this intimate Stage 773 venue, actors are never very far from the audience. The line between theatergoer and actor seems to disappear as patrons become comfortable and feel like almost a part of the story.
This is thanks, in part, to Sarah E. Ross’ rustic scenic design within a forest setting. Jared Gooding’s mood-altering lighting design conveys the earthiness along with the changing Wisconsin seasons. Costumer Lily Grace Walls has designed a realistic wardrobe for the characters, at first in earth tones of brown beige, and eventually bursting with color and patterns like the town itself.
The cast is exceptional. Each actor brings personality and honesty to his or her character. Their powerful voices are filled with pain, healing and, ultimately, blissful happiness.
The always splendid Jacquelyne Jones carries the show playing tough, ex-con Percy Talbott. As her own tragic story begins to blend with the suspicious, gossiping folks around her, Percy’s protective walls start to crumble and secrets are revealed.
The magnificently talented Catherine Smitko is doing some of her finest work in this production. She’s feisty, but real, grounded and humane as Hannah, the bitter, yet motherly owner of the Spitfire Grill.
And lovely Dara Cameron is shy, touchingly withdrawn and emotionally battered as Shelby. Her performance is at once heartbreaking and hopeful. Shelby provides the gentle friendship to Percy that helps the young woman to soften and trust again.
Together, these three talented actresses are transcendent and provide the heart and soul of this production.
All three actresses display excellent, expressive, professionally-trained voices. Jacquelyne Jones’ “A Ring Around the Moon,” which opens the play, is stunning. Dara Cameron’s exquisite “When Hope Goes” tells how the town and its residents have changed over the years. The two women share their hopes and dreams in the wonderful “The Colors of Paradise.” In “Forgotten Lullaby,” Catherine Smitko’s Hannah discovers the deep-rooted feelings and haunting memories that she’s buried for years.
Completing the cast are handsome Donterrio Johnson as Joe, the town sheriff and Percy’s parole officer. He beautifully sings of his own wishes for the future in “This Wide Woods.”
Karl Hamilton plays Caleb, Shelby’s abusive husband, a bitter man who lives in the shadow of an MIA war hero. His melancholy can also be attributed to losing his job after the local quarry closed (“Digging Stone”). Ian Paul Custer is gentle and touching as the mysterious Stranger, a role guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye. And Gabrielle Lott-Rogers is very funny as Effy, the town’s nosy, outspoken postmistress and effusive gossip-monger.
Mader’s production is simply wonderful. It’s pitch perfect in every way, from her magnificently talented cast, to her creative team who help bring the show to life. She presents a heartfelt story with characters and music as cozy and welcoming as comfort food, the perfect anecdote to all the negativity that surrounds us today.
This is really a must-see production, a tale told by a gifted theatre company that absolutely “Shines.”
DETAILS: “The Spitfire Grill” is at American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago through August 17. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 654-3103 or visit American Blues Theater.
“On Clover Road” keeps you on the edge of your seat.
It’s not often that a play comes around that creates such drama and suspense, your heart races and you might have to look away. Such is the case with the live performance of “On Clover Road,” playing at American Blues Theater through March 16, 2019.
The title itself implies a bit of luck that finding a four-leaf clover might bring. In a sense, the play is about luck too, both good and bad, and how it impacts the characters.
Written by Steven Dietz and directed by Halena Kays, “On Clover Road” tells the story of an angry, frustrated mother who meets with a cult de-programmer believing she will be reunited with her runaway daughter. Her daughter has been gone for more than four years and the mother has all but given up hope. Continue reading “Thriller on Clover Road”
Chicago area theaters put on so many excellent productions that picking our top 10 shows is not merely challenging, it also reflects individual points of view, entertainment preferences and theater and music backgrounds. Readers are welcome to disagree and comment with their own suggestions.
This year, we also are including Broadway in Chicago and Lyric Opera contenders because Chicago audiences attend those productions and support those organizations with subscriptions.
A bit about our reviewers: Reno Lovison, Pam McKuen, Francine Friedman, Mira Temkin and editor Jodie Jacobs are professional writers who have contributed over the years to a variety of publications. Read more in the About section of Chicago Theater and Arts. Their selections could each have extended to five and more but were narrowed down to two apiece.
“Haymarket” was an important Chicago story, well performed and included appropriate Bluegrass music reminiscent of labor-oriented folk songs. See review of this Underscore Theatre Company’s production at Haymarket.
“The End of TV”
“The End of TV” made me a Manual Cinema fan, offering a fresh way to experience live performance utilizing old and new technologies. See review of the Manual Cinema production at The End of TV.
(***: In spite of my two picks I find myself periodically thinking about “Arcadia” and “Fear and Misery in the Third Reich” but probably more as a result of the playwright than the players.)
A Paramount Theatre production, “Once” is a sweet but short-lived romance with an imaginative set and an upbeat cast of congenial music-makers that was put on at a suburban jewel. See review of Once.
“On Your Feet”
A Broadway in Chicago presentation at the Cadillac Palace, “On Your Feet” is the life story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. It has everything you’d want in a musical: global hits, glitzy costumes, dramatic lows and comedic punches. I’d see it again. See review at On Your Feet.
Loosely based on the opera “Madame Butterfly,” the musical “Miss Saigon” embraces the relationship between an American GI and a young Asian woman while it follows the final days of the Vietnam War. The play’s touring company of wonderful actors, singers and dancers, along with real photos of orphaned, war-born American/Asian children displayed in its second act, brought the musical to life. See review at Miss Saigon.
“Women of Soul”
At the Black Ensemble Theater through Jan. 21, 2019, “Women of Soul” is a tribute to many well-known female singers, covering their different genres and numerous years. In addition to the wonderful performers who sing their famous tunes, many newly-revealed details of how their careers blossomed and how some of their lives ended adds insight to their backgrounds. And the closing tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, brought everyone to their feet. See the review of Women of Soul.
“The Buddy Holly Story”
An American Blues Theater production, this high-energy biopic of singer/songwriter Buddy Holly kept the music going at a frenetic pace as a testament to the amazing talents of star, Zachary Stephenson and the entire cast. Even though “it was day the music died, according to Don McLean,” the audience never wanted it to end. See review at Buddy Holly Story.
“A Shayna Maidel”
What is family? Can it be created or reborn? “A Shayna Maidel” performed as a revival by TimeLine Theatre, answers these thoughtful questions in a most profound way. See review at A Shayna Maidel.
(*** Also agree that “Miss Saigon” is among the year’s best. This new versio, now on on tour ,takes out all the stops in theatrics, wowing audiences as one of the most spectacular musicals ever written and produced. Contemporary theatre goers can’t help but get caught up in the past, knowing how the war ended with the cost in human life and how many Vietnamese orphans the U.S. left behind.)
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “La boheme” was extraordinary theater. It had everything from inventive scenery and creative staging to exceptional acting, singing and orchestration. Fortunately, it continues in January, 2019. See the review at La boheme.
“Steadfast Tin Soldier”
Audiences have come to expect unusual presentations from Lookingglass Theatre. However, Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation and direction of the “Steadfast Tin Soldier,” has to be seen to really appreciate its outstanding pantomime and puppetry. See the review at Steadfast Tin Soldier.
If you haven’t been invited to a holiday party yet or are just feeling ready to get into the Christmas spirit, you can’t do much better than the American Blues Theater’s staged radio show version of Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life-Live in Chicago!.”
In this production, the theater is set up to give the illusion that you are part of the studio audience for a live radio broadcast in 1944 at WABT Studio on Belmont Avenue in Chicago.
There is a spinet piano, stage left, and three old-timey microphones on stands across the front where most of the action takes place.
Stage right is an array of apparatus where Foley artist Shawn J. Goudie will add sound effects. Above the piano is a lighted sign which displays the words “On Air” and “Applause.”
Some very fine performances and productions were honored at the 50th anniversary of the Jeff Awards Oct. 22 at Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace.
As an example, American Blues Theater’s “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story” received the most awards: Production – Musical -Midsize, Director Lili-Anne Brown, Principal Performer in a Musical Zachary Stevenson, Music Director Michael Mahler,and Ensemble – Musical or Revue.
But think about it. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences name the Oscar winners each year, movie goers who haven’t seen the award-winning shows still can catch them on DVD, Netflix and other film distributes.
Sometimes it’s nice to know what a theater company you like is doing for its next season and the dates to put on your calendar. The “Sneak Peak” series does just that, listing the companies by area .
Descriptions of shows will follow in the next series which will be by category such as world premier, classic, Halloween and holiday.
Meanwhile click on the venues in “Sneak Peak” for the theaters’ own details. BTW, some companies use theater and others use theatre, thus the differences written here are deliberate and not typos.
The venue is at 2936 N. Southport Ave. Black Button Eye Productions is doing “Nightmares and Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier” here, Aug. 17 – Sep 15 in Studio Two. and Dream Big Performing Arts Workshop is doing “Alice and Wonderland Jr. Aug. 17- 18 on the Main Stage.
Studio One has “Bliss (Or Emily Post is Dead)” through Aug 25 and Studio Three has “Bus Stop” through Aug. 19, 2018.
“The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” is in Studio Three Nov. 22-Dec. 16 and “The Elder Son” is in Studio Two, Nov. 15-Dec. 22.
The theater is at 3745 N. Southport Ave. Currently, “Avenue Q” has been extended through Nov. 4, then “Pippin” is in the Venus Cabaret Theater, opening TBA followed by its annual “The Christmas Schooner, date also TBA.
For tickets and other information call (773) 325-1700and visit Mercury Theater.
A multi-theater venue, Stage 773 is at 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
American Blues Theater is doing “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” through Sept. 15, then “Flyin’ West” Oct. 5-Nov. 3 and its annual holiday show, “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago” Nov. 15, 2018-Jan 5, 2019.
Hell in a Handbag has “The Artificial Jungle” Sept. 23-Oct. 28. and “The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes” Oct. 13-Nov. 3.
The Degenerates are doing “Potty Talk” Sept. 3- Oct. 29.
Refresh your memory. How rock ‘n roll was changed by the guy with the big glasses from Lubbock, Texas is worth the trip back in time when taken there by the American Blues Theater’s “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.”
“Buddy” tells the tale of singer/songwriter Buddy Holly and the Crickets through an all too brief career ended by tragedy. Yet, some 50 years later, his music continues to be played and loved by a whole new generation.
Classic songs include: “That’ll be the Day,” “Maybe Baby,” “Peggy Sue,” “It’s so Easy to Fall in Love,” “The Big Bopper’s,” “Chantilly Lace,” “Ritchie Valens,” “La Bamba,” plus many more.
When performing the biography of a legend, how successful the show is depends on who plays the star. In this case, Zachary Stevenson who performed in Paramount’s “Million Dollar Quartet,” is spectacular.
Not only does he physically resemble Holly, but he exudes Holly’s dynamic energy and has all his dance moves down pat, such as hopping on one foot as he plays the guitar. Stevenson’s portrayal of Holly is a joy to watch.
But credit must be given to the entire ensemble whose amazing performances, both vocally and with a range of instruments, are stellar.
Piano, violins, bass, electric guitar and drums glide in and out throughout the show. Although they don’t appear until late in the second act, Cisco Lopez as Ritchie Valens and Vasily Denis as Big Bopper are outstanding.
“Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” an American Blues Theater revival is written by Alan Janes and directed with precision by Lili-Anne Brown. Musical direction is by ensemble member Michael Mahler and costume design is by Samantha C. Jones who must have a ball putting these 1950’s costumes together.
The first act is filled with lots of upbeat Holly music as his career ascends. But it’s a hard act to follow since the audience knows what’s going to happen
However, instead of ending on a downer the show explodes with more of Holly’s music as an enduring testament to his legacy. The audience never wanted it to end.
Prepare yourself for one fabulous night of theater!
DETAILS: The Buddy Holly Story is an American Blues Theater production at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, through May 26, 2018. For tickets and other information call (773) 327-5252 or visit American Blues Theater.