June 22, 2017

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 Theater Diva


You may not know the name of Elaine Paige, but she has made musical theater history in several iconic shows.
She made her 1968 West End theater debut in “Hair,” but it was originating the role of Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1978 musical, “Evita” that really put her on theater map.
She went on to be the first actress to sing the role of Grizabella in “Cats” which resulted in a top ten recording hit for her with the song, “Memory.” She was also in the original production of “Chess,” the musical penned by members of ABBA.
In 1996, she made her Broadway debut in “Sunset Boulevard.”
“The King and I,” “Nine,” “Anything Goes” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” are some of the other musicals that have benefited from her presence.
Having released 22 solo albums, she has also hosted a BBC radio program called “Elaine Paige on Sunday” since 2004. She celebrated 50 years in show biz in 2014. Happy birthday, Elaine Paige who turns 69 this week.

Harold Prince: Superlative Director/Producer

Producer/Director Harold Prince turns 89 this week. His remarkable career spans from being assistant stage manager on Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam in 1950 to directing a revue of songs from his hit shows in 2015.

A partial list of his Broadway endeavors looks like a history of musical theater: The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Candide, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Showboat plus countless others.
I have a tiny little connection to him. Harold Prince was being publicly interviewed in Chicago by theater writer Jonathan Abarbanel. My musical Fat Tuesday was then showing at the old Theater Building Chicago. Our stage set was where the conversation took place in front of a rapt audience.
I had the opportunity to give Mr. Prince a hand-written invitation to attend the Pump Room that evening where I was currently performing.
He sent me a lovely letter back expressing his regrets at not being able to attend the Pump Room since he was flying out later that day. He was most gracious in thanking me for the invitation and expressed fond memories of other visits to this famous supper club. As busy as he was, his courtesy and attention to detail was demonstrated in this kind reply to my note.
Happy Birthday Harold. You are indeed a Prince!

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/

Shoot Me, Documentary on Elaine Stritch

You don’t have to be a theater buff to enjoy Shoot Me, a fascinating 2013 documentary on the legendary Elaine Stritch. Alec Baldwin served as an executive producer on the film project, no doubt as a result of Stritch brilliantly playing his overbearing mother on NBC’s 30 Rock.

We see her home life at the storied Carlyle Hotel in New York, scenes with music director and angel care-taker Rob Bowman and observe a frustrating recording session with Stephen Sondheim when he and Stritch were both much younger. The viewer is treated to interview clips with Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, Harold Prince, George C. Wolfe, John Turturro and James Gandolfini, among others.

We see a brutally honest Stritch who quips that the footage is catching her at “almost post-time.” Indeed, she passed away just a few short months after the film was released in early 2014. If you want to see a one-of-a-kind entertainer from her performance genius all the way to her sometimes messy day-to-day life, this documentary on Netflix will captivate you.

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