December 18, 2017

Becky Shaw at Windy City Playhouse

There is always cause for rejoicing when a new theater opens, especially in a neighborhood that has not previously been known as a theater destination. Windy City Playhouse may have opened in 2015, but this was my first time at the playhouse located in Old Irving Park, to see the dramatic play, Becky Shaw.

I entered the lobby to find myself in the midst of a boisterous pre-show party. I looked around at the crowd and was struck by the variety of ages, skewing on the younger side and the strong fashion sense. “Hipsters with taste and money” was the phrase that came to mind.

Inside the theater, I was lucky enough to nab a swivel chair on the ground floor. The action alternated on two stages opposite one another and in front of me in the center of the theater. I pivoted to wherever the characters were delivering their witty and acerbic banter. Side seating seems to have excellent sight lines but you may want to ask for one of the 70 swiveling ground level seats just for the novelty.

Michael Doonan as a fast-talking cad and Carley Cornelius as a fragile but truth-telling young woman are mesmerizing as the couple thrown together on a blind date by newlyweds who are related to them by family and work. Verbal fireworks ensue. Suzanne Petri is the family matriarch who says the most deliciously biting things with great style.

If you like snappy dialogue about big ideas set in an innovative theater environment, Becky Shaw is the play for you.  

windycityplayhouse.com/becky-shaw/

An American In Paris at the Oriental Theater

I had heard about this charming musical ever since it premiered on Broadway to great acclaim in 2015, so it was with great anticipation that I caught this national tour version of An American In Paris.

The production has several things going for it. Ballet sequences are breath-taking as conceived by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.  George Gershwin’s music provides the lush soundtrack for the whole show. Not only do we hear permutations of his famous An American In Paris orchestral work, but we are treated to portions of his classical Second Prelude, his Concerto in F, his Second Rhapsody and his Cuban Overture. Beloved songs like I Got Rhythm and The Man I Love are sung by cast members, but lesser known tunes like Fidgety Feet, Who Cares and Liza shed new light on Gershwin’s song catalogue.
The technical aspects of the show dazzle with creative use of screen images on the electronic back drop and moving screens. Parisian buildings, paintings and other famous sights delight the eye throughout the show. A recurring view of the river Seine is most amusing as two boats are depicted by different artistic techniques.

The plot harkens back to the basic romantic formula found in black and white movies. Three men who are friends are all in love with the same ballerina. Boy and boy and boy meet girl. Only one boy gets girl.

The action takes place in Paris right after World War II in 1945 so the frothy doings are sprinkled with references to the German Occupation, the Resistance, and the Holocaust making this a work of both light and dark.

For me the orchestral music, the dance sequences, the stage images and Craig Lucas’ snappy dialogue outshine the singing, but this is a quibble when the over-all effect of the production is to know that one has spent a delightful evening at the theater.  Broadway In Chicago will be running An American In Paris at the Oriental Theater through August 13, 2017.

http://www.broadwayinchicago.com/show/an-american-in-paris/

Lonesome Losers of the Night at Theo Ubique

Put Theo Ubique’s excellent chamber revue, Lonesome Losers of the Night on your must-see theater list.

The songs of Jacques Brel burst onto the American scene with a Broadway revue called Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris which opened in 1968. Lyric writer and translator Arnie Johnston has taken on the task of translating Brel songs that are unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, as well as re-translating well-known Brel songs with lyrics that skew closer to the images in the original French versions.

A wonderful collaboration between Theo Ubique and Johnston began in 2006 with Songs of Love and War, the theater’s first Brel revue. This is the second go-round for Lonesome Losers which was previously produced by Theo Ubique in 2008-2009.

The new production features stunning ensemble singing, inventive choreography and blocking, a realistic set, plus the excellent music direction and piano skills of company member, Jeremy Ramey. Theo Ubique lynchpin, Fred Anzevino masterfully directs this 110 minute intermission-less revue. No words are needed as the singing actors segue from solos, duets, trios and quartet numbers. We are drawn into the drama of a seaport speakeasy as we observe the bartender, two sailors and a “girl for sale.” All four performers are skillful, but I was especially impressed with Randolph Johnson as the world-weary bartender and Jill Sesso as the provocative female of the cast.

A few of the songs may sound familiar but the lyrics will be fresh to your ears, such as Don’t Leave Me which is better known as Ne Me Quitte Pas/If You Go Away. Not all of the material is angst-laden, such as Beer, Rosa and the Song of Jacky, but neither is it a laugh riot with the second to last number being the thematically apt, Alone. Emotional depth is the raison-d’etre of this revue.

Cabaret theater like this usually flourishes in small venues such as Rogers Park’s No Exit, allowing the audience to enjoy food, and especially drink during the show. Word comes that the theater company will be moving to Evanston in the near future. Let us hope they recreate this intimate theater environment that requires no mikes and has the actors literally a breath away from their audience.

Get your Brel on before Theo Ubique’s marvelous production, Lonesome Losers of the Night closes on August 6, 2017.

http://www.theo-u.com/

Parade at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, IL

Last night I saw a well-nigh perfect musical theater production of  Parade at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. The singing, acting, staging, choreography, costumes and pit band were all excellent.

For years, I have heard about this storied musical with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and book by famed playwright Alfred Uhry. The work itself reminds me of Floyd Collins with its intricate score and midnight dark topic. Parade has the added benefit of having an emotional apex in act two that alchemically turns bad events into a flowering of love and loyalty.

Leo Frank masterfully played by Patrick Andrews is a Jewish factory owner in Atlanta who is accused of murdering one of his female workers. Brianna Borger portrays his steadfast wife. Everyone in the cast turns in stellar performances but I was especially taken with servant turned chain gang tough Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and Kevin Gudahl as prosecutor Hugh Dorsey.

You might not get the chance to see Parade in the near future and certainly not in a such a stunning production. Director Gary Griffin has created stage magic at Writers Theatre.

This was the first time I had seen their new ultra-modern building and I literally fell in love with the exterior, the lobby and the main stage area. I will certainly be back for other productions.

Don’t let the parade pass you by! The show runs through July 9, 2017.

http://www.writerstheatre.org/calendar-tickets#6/2017

 

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?