February 22, 2017

Elaine Paige, Musical Theatre Diva turns 68

If you are a musical theatre geek, you may know Elaine Paige. She got her start in a West End production of Hair, went on to originate the roles of Eva Peron in Evita, Grizabella in Cats (she had a top ten hit with the song Memory), was in the original production of Chess, graced Broadway in Sunset Boulevard and The King and I, and returned to London’s West End in The Drowsy Chaperone.

Other notable performances were as Mrs. Lovett in the New York City Opera production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, as Edith Piaf in Pam Gems’ musical play Piaf and as Carlotta Campion in the Kennedy Center production of Follies. She has put out 22 solo albums and done concerts world-wide.

She has been dubbed the First Lady of British Musical Theatre and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by no less than Queen Elizabeth. She announced her farewell tour on her 50th anniversary in show biz.  May she do as many farewell tours as Cher!

If/Then: Contemporary musical at Oriental Theater

You still have a couple of weeks left to see the national tour of If/Then currently playing at Chicago’s gorgeous Oriental Theater. Fans of the 2009 Broadway musical, Next To Normal will want to catch If/Then since the same composer and lyricist/book-writer, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, crafted both shows.

Jackie Burns plays Elizabeth, a role originated by Idina Menzel on Broadway. Burns sings with the same edgy belting sound for which Menzel is noted so it is no small wonder that Burns also played the role of Elphaba in Wicked after Menzel initially wowed Broadway audiences.

The production is inventive and swift-moving with a crack band in the pit. The choreography is modern and inventive. The singing actors in the cast are uniformly strong with stand-out Anthony Rapp reprising his Broadway role as Elizabeth’s nerdy activist friend. My two favorite songs were sung by Matthew Hydzik playing boyfriend/husband Josh: You Never Know in Act One and Act Two’s Hey Kid, a contemporary musical scene reminiscent of Soliloquy from Carousel.

The show’s major structural device sets it apart from other musicals but provides its major weakness as well. Throughout the show, we see Elizabeth alternate between the path taken by Liz and that taken by Beth. Several people around me were asking one another, “what’s happening now?” I observed the same confusion in Jason Robert Brown’s musical, The Last Five Years.

Still, if you like contemporary musical theater, this may be just the ticket. http://www.chicago-theater.com/theaters/oriental-theatre/if-then.php

Rush tickets are sometimes available for $25 before show time at the Oriental Theater box office. Hot tix is also featuring discount tickets: http://www.hottix.org/

Happy Birthday, Hal Prince!

Can you think of any theatrical producer/director that has had a wider array of hits and prestige productions on Broadway than Hal Prince? A partial list would include: Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, She Loves Me, Fiddler On the Roof, Cabaret, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, not to mention being Stephen Sondheim’s go-to-guy for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along and  Sweeney Todd. Whew! Whether directing or producing, or doing both, this guy must have been working night and day since the 1950s.

Back in the 90s, Mr. Prince had agreed to be interviewed in front of an audience in Chicago. My musical Fat Tuesday was running at the Theater Building on Belmont. Our stage set happened to be the venue for the Prince program. I gave him a hand-written note inviting him to the Pump Room where I was performing.

He wrote me back saying that he was leaving Chicago after this event, but had warm memories of his previous visits to the Pump Room. He wished me well. I was dazed with hero worship!

He turns 87 this week. Happy Birthday, Mr. Prince!

Posh at Steep Theater – U. S. Premiere

On a recent freezing cold night, my husband surprised me with tickets to see Steep Theater’s current production, Posh in its U. S. premiere. Written by Laura Wade, the Edgewater theater company had great success with one of her previous plays, Breathing Corpses, lauded as one of Timeout Chicago’s best shows of 2008. Having had outings at London’s Royal Court Theatre and the West End, Posh introduces us to a ten member private club for rich British college students.

The club’s annual dinner at a pub builds to a frenzy as the young men smuggle a prostitute into their party, harass their waitress, destroy the dining room and finally assault the restaurant manager. Warfare between the working middle class and the entitled upper crust has never been so entertaining or brutal. A blind man brought his seeing-eye dog to the performance and the noise and fury of the riot scared not only the poor canine, but me as well.

Director Jonathan Berry, no stranger to Steep, helms a talented cast of actors who have surprisingly good English accents. First act which takes some time to engage the audience could be trimmed, whereas act two is like a well-oiled machine, say a buzz saw. The musical soundtrack with classical choral works and techno pop mirrors the tug of war between tradition and progress and the entitled versus the working class.

The theater is tiny so one feels a part of the action. If you hesitate to be up close and personal with the riotous second act, you may be advised not to sit in the front row.  Nothing like a bracing evening at the theater where the characters just go wild! Posh provides much food for thought.

Domesticated at Steppenwolf Theater

You have roughly a month to catch Steppenwolf Theater’s vitriolic play, Domesticated before it closes on Feb. 7, 2016. My initial reason for attending the play was to catch friend and neighbor actress Meg Thalken in her Steppenwolf debut.

Little did I know that the topics brought up during this well-written and marvelously acted piece would cause a tsunami of emotion in my husband and me and in the audience in general.

The main character, Bill Pulver played by Tom Irwin is a doctor and politician who has been caught using the services of prostitutes. We watch his political and professional careers implode along with his marriage. His adopted daughter from Cambodia periodically gives school reports on the mating behavior and gender roles of animals replete with slide show pictures and index cards. The correlation between human and animal behavior is not lost on play attendees.

Marriage comes under fire, but so does gender definition, loyalty, immigration, child-rearing, religion and talk show hosts. Men in the audience audibly groan at the wife’s behavior while women express outrage at the man’s utterances. This is not a feel-good night at the theater, but a most bracing one. Domesticated is the updated version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  in all it’s fury.

And by the way, Meg Thalken is marvelous playing a variety of integral roles in the show. Should I blame her for the argument I had with my husband about who was more despicable, the wife or the errant doctor/politician? Methinks that the playwright/director Bruce Norris is the brilliant guilty party.

Steppenwolf Theater
1650 N. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 335-1650

John Eskola, Chicago actor/vocalist has apartment fire

John Eskola lost much of his apartment in a fire started by an electrical wiring problem. His extensive music library was the first casualty of the fire. Friends, colleagues and generous strangers have rallied to help John move to a new apartment.
Chicago firemen rescued John’s beloved cat, Vicky while they put out the fire.

A little background info on John Eskola: he is a founding member of Chicago Cabaret Professionals and Choir Director and Chief Cantor for weddings, funerals and masses at Assumption Catholic Church (River North) and throughout the Chicago area. A member of Actor’s Equity, he toured internationally as a cast member of the musical Evita, and was in The House of Martin Guerre and The Visit with Chita Rivera at the Goodman Theater.

Members of the cabaret community have been particularly generous to the John Eskola Apartment Fire Fund. For more details or to donate, go to:

https://www.youcaring.com/john-eskola-445391

If you feel so inclined, please share the link with your social media contacts. Karma, as they say, is circular.

John is sifting through his music library. Does anyone want to hear something by Noel Coward? Or possibly Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?

Charles Troy, Great American Songbook historian

I had heard the name Charles Troy within the Chicago Cabaret community for quite some time, but it wasn’t until recently that I got to meet him and see him later that week in performance.

Was I ever impressed! Charles does impeccable research and puts together video/lecture presentations that make use of projected lyrics, historic video, recordings and photos coupled with his polished speaking ability to relate the stories behind the songs.
His topics run the gamut from Broadway shows and movies to individual composers and lyricists with the Great American Songbook being the linchpin of his creations.

On occasion, he has guest singers that add a couple of “live” numbers to his shows. Vocalist Jeff Dean guested in the recent Troy show on George M. Cohan; Judy Rossignuolo-Rice and Bernie Rice will guest star in Troy’s program, “Jerome Kern and the Birth of the American Musical” on October 7 at Skokie Theater, 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm show times.

If you have not seen him yet, do yourself a favor and check out one of his shows. Like me, you just may become one of his new groupies.

Here are some of his other upcoming shows:

Boy Meets Girl/Boy Kills Boy/Girl Goes Mad, September 2 at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm, Skokie Theatre, 7924 N. Lincoln Avenue, Skokie. $15.

The Creation of Oklahoma!, September 9, 6:30 pm. Aurora Public Library, Santorini Library, 101 S. River Street, Aurora. Free.

Cole Porter’s Great Depression, September 25 at 10 am. North Shore Senior Center, 161  Northfield Road, Northfield, IL. $15 non-members. (He presented this show in June at the annual Cole Porter Festival in Peru, Indiana.)

For more information:
http://www.charlestroy.com/Site/homepage.html

Melancholy Play at Piven Theatre

Every so often, I attend a play or musical without consulting reviews and with no pre-conceived notion of what I may see or hear. “Melancholy Play” presented by Piven Theatre Workshop at the Noyes Cultural Center in Evanston was a happy surprise. This chamber musical is rather like an abstract painting as opposed to a figurative Norman Rockwell canvas.  Phantom of the Opera or The Music Man this is not.

The five character cast sing and act impeccably finding the right mix of absurdity and emotional realism. An excellent string quartet and a sparse piano part provide the musical underpinnings where almost everything is underscored. Todd Almond’s music is at once fresh, modern and melodic. The bright star of the piece is playwright Sarah Ruhl’s script with the heroine, Tilly exploring her relationship with melancholy. The composer has taken Ruhl’s poetic dialogue and set these words to music. Listeners wanting song forms (verse, chorus) will be disappointed, but the result is a seamless stream of spoken dialogue and sung material. The audience rarely claps after people sing because they are effortlessly drawn forward and not cued to applaud just because someone has stopped singing.

Pulitzer prize finalist and Tony nominee for best new play, Sarah Ruhl attended classes at Piven in her younger years so this is a gratifying “coming home” production. Director Peggy Noonan makes this small space seem immense with her imaginative use of stage movement and actor placement. One character sits on the piano bench while singing; another lounges on a staircase or drapes white material behind them as they cross the stage. The sung group numbers get a stereophonic quality with the actors spread out at the far reaches of the stage. Inventive lighting and sound also add a magical quality.

I have one auditory complaint: the actors are not miked so the seating area next to the piano is sometimes a poor place to catch all of the singing and dialogue on the other side of the stage. With that said, I love the chamber quality of unamplified voices and instruments.

In a question and answer forum with the cast after a Sunday show, I facetiously called this work a cross between “The Fantasticks” and a play by Eugene Ionesco. If that delights rather than scares you, by all means wangle a seat to see this charming show before the extended June 21 closing. As an inside joke, you may want to snack on some almonds before seeing the show.

http://piventheatre.org/2015-season/

Once: The Musical returns to Chicago

Many fans of musical theater have admitted that they missed the musical Once when it was on Broadway or when it first played Chicago in 2013. Here is an alert on a brief run at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theater June 2 through June 7, 2015. Don’t miss it!

The musical is based on a popular 2006 movie which featured an Oscar-winning song entitled “Falling Slowly.” The songwriters of the hit movie score teamed up to flesh out the music for a Tony-award winning Broadway run. The touring production in 2013 was stunning with excellent choreography, cast members that sing and play instruments and a love story that successfully transferred from film to stage.

In the previous Chicago production, one entered the theater to see an Irish bar on stage with audience members queuing up to buy actual beer. Cast members were mingling with on-stage bar patrons while they started playing acoustically. Less adventuresome theater-attendees, myself included, were delighted by the bar tableau from their theater seats. Almost without notice, the music started to be amplified, the bar patrons were invited to find their seats and the show had officially started. I was delighted by this pre-show idea and the production continued at this same entertaining level from start to finish.

The movie soundtrack was charming and low-key, but this Broadway musical incarnation with its Irish overtones had rousing dance and instrumental sequences that were breath-taking. I am unfamiliar with this new touring cast, but you may want to take a chance that the show is still creating magic.

The Once web site is offering discounts for weekdays.
http://once-musical-chicago.ticketsw.com/

Goldstar has a limited number of discounted seats as well:
http://www.goldstar.com/events/chicago-il/once

Louis and Keely, Live At the Sahara (really at the Royal George)

I am giving a qualified recommendation to Louis and Keely, Live At the Sahara currently on the Royal George main stage due to the fantastic work of Anthony Crivello as Louis Prima and Vanessa Claire Stewart who marvelously plays Keely Smith and also co-wrote the book. Paul Perroni as Frank Sinatra and various other characters exudes charm as does Erin Matthews artfully playing any number of broads and dames.

The crack on-stage music ensemble, playing Louis Prima’s back-up band, The Witnesses has some of the cream of Chicago’s musical crop: Jeremy Kahn on piano, Bill Overton on Baritone Sax, Guitar and Clarinet, Dan Johnson on Trombone, Michael Solomon on Percussion and Jon Paul on Bass. Colin Kupka impressively plays jazz tenor sax great Sam Butera who was a featured artist in Prima’s band. The musicians even sing or shout melody lines as back-up to Prima’s and Keely’s numbers. Whenever the singing actors sing and the band plays, the show crackles.

The set, by producer/singer/actor/writer Hershey Felder really evokes the glamour of Vegas in the 1950s. The choreography is charming. The stage production values couldn’t be better in a house of this size. Famed film director Taylor Hackford is at the helm of this musical show and for the most part does an admirable job. There is a split scene, however, with Keely singing and Louis going through newspaper gossip column clippings his mother has sent him. Surely there could be a clearer and less cluttered way of showing that Keely’s mother-in-law was not a fan of hers.

Prima on a gurney at the top of the show is a daring and possibly dangerous way to start the show. I would have liked to have heard the fantastic music going on in his head from the moment the audience sees him followed by the scene with doctor and nurse.

As for the final bookend visit to the hospital, could we have something hopeful at the end of the show? Did Keely Smith go on without him? Could there be an acknowledgement that the years they spent together off and on the stage were a magical time? He flippantly says that he should have gone back home with her, but that is not satisfying as an ending.

Louis and Keely’s storyline is very similar to “A Star Is Born” in both the 1937 and 1954 film versions. Both movies buoy the audience back up with inspirational scenes played by their respective heroines. Some similar device might have left this musical on a higher emotional peak. At the risk of re-writing the show, could we see Prima finally realize that the best time of his life was with Keely and that is what he replays while unconscious? Perhaps that is what the writers intended but this needs to be strengthened.

I left the Royal George Theater humming and snapping my fingers but with a vague melancholy at the downbeat ending. By all means go see this show if you were a fan of Louis Prima and Keely Smith and want to hear fantastic renditions of their hits, but know you won’t be joyously dancing into the lobby after you’ve seen the sad denouement of their personal and musical collaboration.