“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.”
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.
Popular Chicago stage veteran Hollis Resnik has joined such leading ladies as Glenn Close and Patti LuPone to inhabit the delusional figure of Norma Desmond in the musical version of “Sunset Boulevard.”
Resnik does so with such believability and panache as to make viewers wonder if she is able to shed the role when leaving Porchlight Music Theatre each night.
A 1993 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, the stage show is based on a 1950 Billy Wilder film noir about a one-time silent screen star desperate for a comeback.
Her unwitting victim is Joe Gillis (Billy Rude), a struggling Hollywood movie writer who needs the script rewrite job Desmond offers so he can pay off his car loan.
Not sure how many times I’ve seen ‘A Chorus Line,” but director Brenda Didier and choreographer Chris Carter’s version now at Porchlight Music Theatre, is not a copy.
It goes back to director Michael Bennett’s concept to present the story behind who are the dancers/singers in a musical’s chorus line.
He was interested in why do they want to be in a chorus line, when did they decide they wanted to dance as a career, what happens if they are accepted or not when they audition and finally, what will they do after they no longer can dance. In January 1974, he now famously asked a group of dancers to talk about themselves and if he could record it. Their responses make up the show. Continue reading “‘A Chorus Line’ is the back story”
If escaping to somewhere warm hasn’t worked out this year then escape instead to a fun or interesting play that takes you to a different time or place.
“All Childish Things,” a crazy plan to steal Star Wars toys from a warehouse encounters the Dark Side, at First Folio in Oakbrook through Feb. 24. The show is appropriate for Star Wars fans ages 12 and up.
Seeing a show at First Folio is an experience because it is in the Mayslake Peabody Estate, a supposedly haunted mansion in a Du Page County Forest Preserve.
“The Producers,” Mel Brooks zany plot to make money on a show by producing a flop, is at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora through March 17, 2019.
Paramount is worth the drive to Aurora because the shows there are full-blown, Broadway-style productions with excellent casts and great scenic design, costumes and orchestration.
“Dear Evan Hansen,” a complicated scenario dealing with mental health, fitting in, bullying and other problems teens face in high school, is at the James M Nederlander Theatre (formerly Oriental) through March 10.
The Tony-Award winning musical is starting its National tour in Chicago as part of the Broadway in Chicago series.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” a delightful Porchlight Music Theatre production at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, through March 16.
If you haven’t seen a Porchlight musical, it’s time to add it to your go-to list.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a classic August Wilson play, is at Writers Theatre, Glencoe through March 17.
August Wilson presents, rather than tip toes through, confrontation, but he does so in unexpected ways. Plus, Writers Theatre is in an award-winning Jeanne Gang (Studio Gang Architects) designed structure.
Few plays open in song or in verse giving advice to the audience that if they are too weak to listen to a story of revenge and punishment, they’d better leave the theater.
However, it’s laughter that greets the Porchlight Music Theatre’s ensemble when they sing the warning to open the 2014 Tony Award-winning Best Musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.”
Taking place in turn-of-the-century England, the “gentleman” is Monty Navarro played by Andres Enriquez. Monty is very poor, but Miss Shingle, played by Caron Buinis, helps him discover that he’s an heir to a fortune. Unfortunately, Monty is so far back in line he has to eliminate eight D’Ysquith relatives ahead of him.
Downtown Chicago has a slew of good shows scheduled for the 2018-2019 theater season but don’t miss out on the shows that are likely to be Jeff Award Winners in the city’s neighborhoods and suburbs.
Our next peek at what will be playing checks on the Near North/Lincoln Park neighborhoods including the multi-theater venues of the Ruth Page Center and Greenhouse Center. Some theaters in the area have not published their season yet so stand by for more info.
A Red Orchid Theatre
The theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., starts the fall with “Small Mouth Sounds” Oct. 18 then goes into winter with “Fullfillment Cente Jan. 31 and into spring with “The Killing Game” May 2. For tickets and more information visit Red Orchid and call (312) 943-8722.
For those who aren’t familiar with the revised musical ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ based on the book by George Furth with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, prepare yourselves for a wide range of emotions while observing the lives of three close-knit friends over many decades.
The original Broadway play written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1934 evolved into a musical in 1981 that barely survived. Fortunately, Sondheim and Furth revised the show in 1994, which is now a fabulous production at Porchlight Music Theatre at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts.
Directed by Michael Weber with music director Aaron Benham, this remarkable musical is presented in reverse chronological order with the years posted on the stage’s backdrop so that the audience can easily follow the three friends’ relationship— easily, but not always merrily.
The trio of friends includes Franklin “Frank” Shephard (Jim DeSelm), a talented musician whose objective is to make money—and who eventually succeeds by marketing to influential folks who can help him.
His longtime friend is Charley Kringas (Matt Crowle), a wonderful lyricist who doesn’t want to follow Frank’s ways of reaching his goal.
The trio includes Mary Flynn (Neala Barron), a writer and friend to Frank and Charley but whose longing for Frank is slowly uncovered while the play continues going back in time.
Frank, Charley and Mary’s early friendship started out like a song. And on that note, most of their relationship is told through many musical numbers, such as “Old Friends/Like It Was,” sung by the trio with lyrics such as “we were nicer then” . . . and “old friends fade—they don’t make the grade.”
‘Merrily We Roll Along’ also reveals other relationships. Frank’s marriage to his first wife, Beth, (Aja Wiltshire), is destroyed by his affair with Gussie Carnegie (Keely Vasquez). Beth sings “Not a Day Goes By” as she gains custody of their young son while she and Frank divorce.
We first observe the three friends at beginning of the play where they’ve already achieved success despite painful experiences that ruined their relationship. Then we travel back so that at the end of the play, we see their friendship decades earlier as they try to launch their careers.
In addition to the five major outstanding cast members, the rest of the exceptionally talented cast of over twenty men and women also bring their extraordinary voices to the musical numbers. They are accompanied by seven marvelous musicians.
Many of the play’s lyrics are memorable, but one line is unforgettable: “Friendship is like a garden . . . you have to water it and care for it.”
DETAILS: ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ is at Porchlight Music Theatre at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, through March 17th, 2018. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes. For tickets and other information, call (773) 777-9884 or visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org
What if you have a dream or passion that does not fit other people’s notion of you?
‘Billy Elliot the Musical,’ playing now at The Prochlight Music Theater through Nov., 26, 2017 is about managing change and redefining who others say you are and who you think you can be.
The stage play with music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall is adapted from the 2000 movie “Billy Elliot.” The time frame Is Thatcher era 1980’s in a small coal mining town near Newcastle in England. Union miners have been on strike for nearly a year and tensions between them and the “scabs” brought in to replace them is violent.
Billy Elliot (Jacob Kaiser) is 12 years old, his mum (Nicole Cready) is dead, his grandmother (Iris Lieberman) is senile and his brother (Adam Fane) and father (Sean Fortunato) are on the picket line, struggling to survive.
One day Billy happens into the community gym and gets involved with a rag-tag ballet class run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Shanesia Davis). The chance encounter ultimately helps Billy find a way to express his budding adolescent angst, repressed grief, and shared frustration of what seems to be the impossible social situation that seemingly defines his life.
This expression is interpreted in two emotionally powerful dance numbers “Angry Dance” and “Electricity,” each skillfully co-choreographed by Brenda Diddier / Craig V. Miller and brilliantly performed by Kaiser with Ivan Bruns-Trukhin as Older Billy.
In his transformation to adulthood Billy begins to consider his sexual identity which is tested by Mrs. Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie (Princess Isis Z. Lang), his best friend Michael (Peyton Owen) and a testosterone filled environment that does not necessarily consider ballet dancing a viable or proper gender conforming career path.
His dilemma, as well as economic realities, requires that he and those who are concerned for his future re-imagine another way of being.
Everyone must come to terms with the fact that times are changing. Coal is no longer part of the future. The jobs and the community that supported the industry are no longer an accepted surety.
Led by Director Brenda Didier, the company is outstanding from beginning to end starting with Jacob Kaiser who is an energetic and expressive dancer, singer and actor.
His transformation from beginner to advanced dancer was well controlled. His voice has a gravelly quality that is perfect for his age. It is clear this young man understands the part he is playing. Every line and every step was just right. He handles this demanding role with subtlety and maturity, devoid of annoying precociousness. Bravo!
Adam Fane, Billy’s older brother kept his emotional performance in bounds. Sean Fortunato, Billy’s Dad portrayed a perfect mix of stoicism and compassion.
Chicago stage veteran Iris Lieberman was spot-on as Grandma avoiding what could become a cliché performance. Peyton Owen as Billy’s best friend embraced his character with charm and elegance. Shenesia Davis manages the demands of her straight talking character Mrs. Wilkinson whose somewhat aloof nature could be misconstrued as harsh.
The ensemble was excellent, and it was clear that the girls of the ballet were having a blast.
Recognition must be given to dialect coach, Sammi Grant because there was never a time that anyone’s “English” accent was a distraction or got in the way of their performance.
Staging provided by this comparatively small venue at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts allows you to experience this production of “Billy Elliot the Musical” in a very intimate way.
The score has a unique quality that is difficult to define. It is contemporary but not “pop” or “rock.” It has aspects of classic musical theater but is not driven by the melody.
The play’s anthem, “Solidarity,” is rousing and powerful. “Grandma’s Song” is humorous and poignant. “Expressing Yourself” is a showstopper while “Born to Boogie” offers a bit of lightness and levity. In the case of “The Letter” I doubt there was a dry eye in the house.
Conductor/ Pianist Linda Madonia and her musicians Justin Kono, Cesar Romero, Greg Strauss, Cara Hartz, Dan Kristan and Sarah Younker provided the cast with a wonderful accompaniment behind the set’s sliding glass panels in the back of the stage which provided an effective illusion of the miners’ elevator decent at the end of the play.
In short this production is perfection.
Note: The part of Billy Elliot is shared at various performances by Lincoln Seymour.
DETAILS: ‘Billy Elliot’is at The Porchlight Music Theater in the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, through Nov. 26, 2017. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 777-9884 or visit Porchlight Music Theatre.