The Lyric seats 3,563. Fortunately, our seats were closer than those at the Paramount in Aurora. I’d never seen Superstar. It was interesting to see so many attendees my age who were there for love and nostalgia, and the young and very young who were there because this musical is timeless. No need to cover the book. We know the story. The telling was mesmerizing.
There is no dialogue, only song and orchestration. The cast was “beige”, a few white, and the rest black and tan. Likely, this is authentic for the eastern Mediterranean setting. Costumes, except for Herod, were “beige”, most looked like old workout clothes. The set worked wonderfully for the all sorts of scenes: crowd, groups and solos. The ramp coming from stage rear at an angle was used for entrances (King Herod with gold cape 50 feet long) and exits, and as a dining table for the last supper sequence. The tableau was an homage to da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
The music combines rock and roll with jazz, funk, and lyrical ballads ("I Don’t Know How to Love Him"). As usual, every performer and every instrument was miked, which gave a sameness to the sound. The lyrics are difficult enough to understand because they are sung quickly. And, when there was a crescendo of voices and orchestra, the person running the sound board did nothing to modulate the mikes – deafening. I would have benefited from reading the libretto prior to the performance. But it did not dawn on me that understanding would be so difficult.
Overall, I enjoyed the performance. Now, I’ve seen every Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Wasn’t on my bucket list, but great fun.
Yes, we did it again – saw our favorite musical. It’s an hour drive west to Aurora, IL with little or no traffic. Therefore, Saturday or Sunday matinees are our only options. This was the Saturday matinee on St. Patrick’s Day, so a good plan to be away from Division Street bars and drunken amateurs.
The Paramount Theater opened for movies in 1931. In addition to “talkies”, it also offered vaudeville, concerts, sing-a-longs and circus performances…all inside Illinois’ first air-conditioned building outside of Chicago. Acoustics and sight lines were so well designed there was not one bad seat in the house.
The theater served the community for 40 years. Then, like many grand, old movie houses, it fell into disrepair. In 1976, restoration began, as part of the revitalization of Aurora, which had lost its cache as a good place to live on the Fox River. Today, it is a beautiful venue, and Aurora has grown to the second largest city in Illinois. Where city theaters are seeing their subscriptions decline, The Paramount had 36,000 subscribers to it 1888 seats. Well done, all!
The secret to their success is producing Broadway caliber musicals way out in the suburbs. They tapped a financially secure market that does not want the trouble of getting to the city, surviving traffic, and searching for parking space. But they want good theater. We enjoyed Cabaret; not so much the trip to the suburbs and not so much our seats in the middle of the balcony. We are spoiled by our smaller venues in the city where you can see the performers, not just hear them.
It's been a while since I've reviewed for Picture This Post. This production was a serendipitous choice recommended by my friend, Jay Kelly, who handles the PR for Manual Cinema.
Theo Ubique is the ultimate small Chicago theater at the NoExit Cafe. Seats 55; you can buy a dinner-theater package; drinks are served; servers are the actors; tickets are inexpensive; the store-front space is located right next to the el, everyone is friendly and welcoming. They produce outstanding musicals. Every inch is the space is used for entrances/exits, performance platforms, stage. For Sweeny Todd, a small group of musicians was tucked behind a scrim next to the bathroom. Music surrounds the audience.
We left the theater floating inches off the ground from such a splendid experience. The actors/singers were masterful. Sweeny was poignantly played by Philip Torre, an operatic baritone. He did not let his vocal power overwhelm the small space. Torre is solidly built, and as close as we were, that enhanced his vulnerability. The rest of the performers were of equal caliber. The production by Fred Anzevino, Torre, and Jacquelyne Jones (Mrs. Lovett) and the Musical Director, Jeremy Rane--all won non-Equity Jeff Awards. Well deserved. And the musical itself, written by Hugh Wheeler, music and lyrics by Steven Sondheim – one of the best ever produced.
This is our fourth year of attending the festival. Some pieces burned brighter, some exploded.
Nobody’s Home by Theatre Temoin & Grafted Code Theatre (U.K., U.S.)
We hear so much about PTSD – could it really be as bad as painted? Granted, there must be degrees, but this 50-minute piece featuring two performers as returned-vet husband and at-home, pregnant, wife, delivers intensity of feeling with a gut punch. Click here for Amy Munice's review on Picture This Post.
The Red Bastard: Lie with Me (New York)
"Body and Motion Theater" defines the buffoon, "a character living at the fringe of society, daring to say what others won’t. Many times the one to tell us a painful truth while the rest prefer to live in a lie."
Oh lord, The Red Bastard did just that. He leads the audience down his seductive path until we all admit we are liars. After all, who really has read all the verbiage in the multiple "terms and conditions" which we agree to on a computer program or website? As he licks his fingers in tasty enjoyment of our admissions, we can’t wait to see him hoist another of us on his petard.
Eric Davis's performances are sold out year after year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. No wonder, we laughed and laughed, even as he revealed our willingness to lie, lie, lie.
In the second half of the performance, Davis sheds his red garb and we lose the enchantment of theater to not-so-funny improv with several audience members. Next time, just more buffooning, please.
Drunken Half-Angel featuring Michael Montenegro of Chicago
Short vignettes feature a local genius of physical theater, Michael Montenegro. I loved the masks and puppetry, but found it disjointed. Here's Nate Hall's review from Picture This Post.
The Other by Gael Le Cornec (Brazil/France)
Hers is a story of immigration, separation, loss and insanity. The narrative is woven by shadow puppets, a doll that represents an abandoned child used as a puppet , and narration by Le Cornec. The story is powerful. If we were not reading about this every day, the performance might have more impact. For me, it was difficult to become involved when stories of children ripped from their parents are in our headlines every day. I'm jaded to this tragedy.
Shadow puppets are a difficult medium, requiring precise coordination between the lighting designer, the puppeteer and the large or small puppets. In this instance, the puppets seemed to be designed to appear childish and unfinished--like they might have been torn out of paper in a detention camp. The puppets became the medium to tell about beating and probably rapes suffered at the hands of the guards. further distancing reality. Unfortunately, the shadow puppet sequences were laced with technical problems, which distracted everyone. A talented performer, but the execution was spoiled.
The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Little Soldier Productions (Spain/UK)
Can you squeeze the whole of Don Quixote into an hour performance? Well, these three talented performers, accompanied by a Spanish guitarist (For no apparent reason, except that she plays a good classical guitar.) attempt to capture the essence of the masterpiece in silly scenes, mostly on a small platform stage. They are acrobats as well as actors, and use their bodies to become horses, houses, whores, heros. But it's likely that, like me, they never read the book.
The setup is a good excuse for lots of romping fun, including an audience-involving pillow fight. Aside from some good laughs, the magic did not happen for me. But my sister-in-law has studied Don Quixote, and she loved this much abbreviated version. I couldn't even make it through the Cliff Notes of Don Quixote. Perhaps it played better in Spain or the UK where the Don is required reading.
Onward to 2019 and more physical theater.
I thought A Little Night Music was not one of my top Sondheim musicals. Think again, after this production, I’m still humming tunes weeks later. Again, a small theater seating 195, with four musicians (piano, woodwind, violin and viola) center-back, with a cast of 15, all skilled singers. The operetta-like music sways with lyrical waltzes ("Night Waltz"), intricate harmonies ("Remember?") and ensemble numbers ("A Weekend in the Country"). The acting was excellent, to the point that when Desiree and Frederick sang "Send in the Clowns", I felt the poignant frustration of star-crossed lovers.
IMHO Mme. Armfeldt, the dowager mother, who becomes the catalyst for the lovers, was too refined. Over the years, this was a role played by the likes of Hermine Gingold and Elaine Stritch. In 1989, I saw Lila Kedrova in this role in London. She had the age, the panache, the humor, and the gravelly voice to embrace the role.
BoHo will win well-deserved awards for this show. They use all non-Equity performers. In Chicago, that still means the highest of talents who give their hearts to the audience for a pittance. As Ed and I left the theater, there was a BoHo staff member with a bucket for donations. Unbeknownst to each other, we each put in $20. It was that kind of evening. Thank you, BoHo.
This one-nun show Late Nite Catechism, which has been running since 1993 at the Royal George Theater is still great fun. Read my review of "Sister" Mary Zentmyer and her audience of unruly adult CCD students “Royal George Theater Hosts Nuns4Fun’s LATE NITE CATECHISM Review – Nuns ARE Fun!” in culture and travel zine Picture this Post.
When the theater announcements talked about a naughty hand puppet, I ordered tickets. Hand to God is a funny/sad play in the vein of Book of Mormon, but not as satirical. It’s about a teenage boy and his recently widowed mother, each grieving in their unique way.
The Rector of their Lutheran Church (This takes place in the south, so I would have thought Baptist, but the playwright gets to select his religion.) suggests that Mom conduct a puppet therapy class for troubled teens. Mom lets her rage out having sex with a teenage boy in her class and her son, Jason, gets involved with his hand puppet in all the imaginable teen-age boy ways. Eventually, the puppet takes over and mayhem results. Funny, yes, and in the end, tender.
The stars, Curtis Edward Jackson and his hand, were wonderful. He fully captured the dual role making both believable. Skillful puppet work. The rest of the cast were equally fine. My favorite scene was the boy talking with a female puppet-class mate while their hand puppets are having rather explicit sex in their puppeteers’ laps. Yes, it is that sort of play. A rousing Prince!
We’re going to see Stephens’ play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time while in London, so wanted to see this 2011 collection of three dark vignettes situated in Sipson, a relic of a town in the flight path of Heathrow. Stephens is Associate Playwright for Steep; that’s the quality of professionals this tiny theater attracts. The vignettes are loosely connected, dealing with foster children, sexual brutality, white slavery, pedophilia and those involved. Not so bright and sunny, good writing and fine acting, but not a significant arc of drama. But we will continue to toad-kiss frequently at this theater.
Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in the same musical – who would miss the opportunity to see the show? I heard the book was weak, and it was. It’s difficult to cram 50 years of two lives into two and a half hours. The protagonists are Helena Rubinstein (Patti) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine) and the subject is cosmetics, and very successful women who understood what women want and need, even when it involved a bit of deceit. Almost more singing than dialogue. Too bad that Stephen Sondheim wasn’t involved. The costumes were wonderful and the hats…well, see for yourselves.
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow), by Mark Stein, Music and Lyrics by Harley White, Jr., produced by Raven Theater Company. The following taken from a review by Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun Times, because she says it so much better than I.
“It’s a stunner. Mark Stein’s important, ingeniously conceived play — with a wonderfully warped use of traditional songs, plus original music and lyrics by Harley White Jr. — is a magnificent achievement on the part of its creators. And it has been brilliantly directed by Michael Menendian (in the most superb, breakout work of his long career), with a cast of nine young, blazingly talented African American actors diving brilliantly into satirical work that would bring a big smile to Bertolt Brecht’s face.
Add to this the droll, effortless presence of pianist-music director Frederick Harris, the volcanic period choreography by Kathleen Dennis and the contributions of an ideal design team, and you have a production that does full justice to the enduring case being chronicled. But you also have a show that turns what might have been a straightforward documentary into a volcanic, searingly painful yet simultaneously immensely entertaining look at the whole panoply of issues — race, politics, justice, celebrity, sex, money, class and the nature of individual character — illuminated by this case.”
In my own words – DBH and I were gob-smacked by this play. In addition to all that Ms. Weiss says, this play has masks. Yes, masks, as in double suspension of disbelief. The African-American actors wore masks to become the white characters in the telling of this tale of hate and ignorance. This was our first time at the Raven Theater, even though it’s been on North Clark for 30 years. A real food desert if you want to combine dinner with theater. So, not one of our most memorable meals, but one of our most memorable evenings of theater. A full-blooded royal prince.
July 17, 2016
How timely – a play about African-American and white police officers feuding, grumpy family relations, elder-achievers and Trump-like negotiations – this play has it all.
Several years ago, we saw Guirgis’s The Mother****er with the Hat, a good play about marginal people, directed by Anna D. Shapiro at Steppenwolf. We enjoyed it, but felt it lacked moral heft. Good acting, but where was the point?
Between Riverside and Crazy premiered three years after the Hat, and Guirgis’s development as a playwright shows. This is a play with a deep moral core, whether you like the ending or not. He takes time to build the conflicts, he surprises with the resolution. Anna D. Shapiro, now Artistic Director at Steppenwolf, again directed. The actors are excellent. Eamonn Walker is the lead.
What I like best about this play is the change-up in plot and pace in the second act. By the end of the first act, I was almost bored with the conflicts and what appeared to be yet another “angry black man, frustrated white man” set-up. But in the end, everyone got what they wanted, even though they may have sacrificed more than they anticipated. Definitely a Prince.
Ira Levin wrote this play in 1978 and it has been performed continuously since. It’s a comedy-mystery about play writers – a lovely way to laze away a hot afternoon with sister-in-law, Norah. Best of all was the location – Drury Lane Theater in Oak Book Terrace. This hotel, cum conference center, cum 900 seat theater is a monument to all the kitsch of the 80’s. Think the TV show Dallas. We enjoyed the play. It was all good fun.
I loved it! Rude, crude, satirical, irreverent and ultimately sweet, almost with a moral to the story. The casting was excellent. Cody Jamison Strand steals the show as the anti-hero in the mode of early John Belushi sweetness with a sadistic twist. Singing and dancing were fun – and seemed to never stop.
Best of all were the two ads in the program from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints proclaiming, “The book is always better”, featuring a lovely young woman of uncertain ancestry, and “You’ve seen the play…now read the book,” featuring a man of African ancestry. A sign of maturity is the ability to poke a bit of fun at yourself. And, the Mormons appear to be able to do just that.
Per my friend, Wikipedia, “Physical theatre is a genre of theatrical performance that pursues storytelling through primarily physical means. Several performance traditions all describe themselves as "physical theatre", but the unifying aspect is a reliance on physical motion of the performers rather than or combined with speech to convey the story. In basic sense, you talk through hand gestures, body language, use of objects and many more physical features." Mimes, sure, but so much more – puppets, masks, dance, sound effects – components that take “suspension of disbelief” to another sphere.
Last year, my sister-in-law, Norah, and I stumbled on one night of Physical Fest 2015 and were swept away by two performances: a one-man show “A Little Business at the Big Top” that recreates the world of circus and “Popol is Gone,” described as "a journey through madness, revolution and solitude" that is conveyed as a dialogue with the audience. We vowed to return.
And we did, with Festival passes (not quite like Taste of Chicago or Lollapalooza passes), and dragged DBH along, though he did not much protest. This year we attended all five productions – and wished we could have attended the workshops. Here’s the lineup with our feedback.
Hominus Brasilis by Cia Manual (Brazil). 6o minutes of non-stop movement and a few words (mostly jibberish) that told the story of Brazil from the creation of the world to Zika virus and the Olympics. You see the size of the “stage” in the photo. And the movement rarely stopped on this lily pad for performance. Magical, definitely a Prince.
How to Find Romania, written and performed by Laura Simms. Simms is a storyteller, and a substitute in this lineup. You would not normally put a verbal performer into this festival. She’s good, sometimes really good. But, her performance is too long, with sections that could have been easily edited out. Score: Toad
The Bag Lady by Malgosia Szkandera, a Spanish artist of Polish descent. Magic with plastic bags, mostly the common white grocery kind. Such amazing physical control of her body to provide movement for her tiny puppets. What imagination! Definitely a Prince.
Sad Songs for Bad People by Rough House Puppet Theater (Chicago). Puppets again, mostly with dark themes and, unfortunately, dark lighting. Instead of regular spots, they used #10 cans on poles wired for lighting. One sequence featured “black light”, but everything was so dim you could not follow the action. Understandably they are attempting to create an atmosphere of amateurism, but they must be a bit more appreciative of the needs of the audience to accomplish this reverse of technique. Some of the sequences were stunning, so very sad. Score: Very dark Prince
Hold Onto Your Butts by Recent Cutbacks (New York). This rocked the house. If you have seen Return to Jurassic Park, picture the whole story told by two men and a Foley (sound effects) artist. Raunchy, punchy, over-the-top athletic with amazing sound-effects and sight-gags. I want to see it again and again… Score: Prince.
This won’t be a rant about brand being a promise of quality – especially since we attended a preview performance. Thaddeus and Slocum, as we saw it, is not up to the quality of a Lookingglass production. This is Kevin Douglas’s first full length play.
The subject matter is difficult: an interracial Vaudeville (black/white) duo in which the “negro” wears black face because an interracial act would not be booked in either black or white theaters at the turn of the century. (Probably would not have been booked in most of the U.S. until into the second half of the 20th century.) So, right away you have a social/moral conundrum, interspersed with a love story, and Vaudeville acts. Lookingglass is known for their outstanding physical theater – precise dancing, gymnastics, incredible staging – this in no way measured up. And the story is poorly written, not compelling.
Oh to be 35 again – and experiencing Chicago theater for the first time. Sender, by Chicago playwright Ike Holter, would have sent me to the moon. This play is well crafted; the acting is excellent; the direction sharp and coherent; the stage and the theater small and gritty.
But, it’s 30 years later and we’ve been there, done that. Guess this is part of the price of seniority – not much wows us. However, this play and Steep’s The Few are the best we have seen this summer.
We saw Holter’s Exit Strategy last summer at the Jackalope Theater. It dealt with Chicago teachers facing the closing of their high school – a reality in the Chicago Public School District. It, too, was well written, but Sender shows growth and maturity - also a better troop of actors.
Interesting that both Sender and The Few begin with the surprise appearance of the male central character who has disappeared for one and four years. Did the authors attend the same workshop? It is an interesting device for introducing all sorts of mayhem.
There is an extended sequence in this play where the two male characters, one the returnee and the other the bereft best friend, rebond. The language and action seemed so real and true (lots of beer involved, of course) that I asked DBH after the performance how, as a man, he felt about the scene. He confirmed my reaction.
Like The Few, Sender deals with characters living on the fringe - in this case, artsy, marginally employed millennials. One works at Groupon. Ever read their offer descriptions? Groupon prides itself on employing Chicago artsy folks, especially actors who need day jobs. They are given license in writing up offers, often resulting in unintelligible jargon probably fun and funny to their cronies. They make good grist for the playwright.
Tracy Letts is a remarkable playwright – and a remarkable actor. I’ve not seen all of his plays, but “Killer Joe” and “August Osage County” are memorable. And his turn on “Homeland” as the nefarious Senator turned CIA Director Lockhart was evil fun.
So where did this loving, tender story of an unremarkable woman come from? It’s told in 90 minutes of vignettes from the life of MPM. Played by six actresses, with no attempt at physical cohesion, and a large supporting cast, you see MPM from birth through life-accepting senior. What you experience is a woman who grows and learns and makes poor choices, pays the price and moves on. You want more. You want a cherry on the top, or a large reveal – and there is none.
The Chicago Tribune reviewer, Chris Jones, gave it four stars. And one of his reasons is that the six actresses each have the opportunity to hit it out of the park in their turn on stage – and he’s correct, they do. But, I was left wanting more. That’s not a bad thing, and usually indicates that the playwright is crafting a good tale, but it left me undernourished.