A satisfying ‘Sense and Sensibility’ at Chicago Shakes

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Editor’s note: I had to bow out of reviewing this production due to a massive sinus infection, but the lovely book nerd Jamie Prahl, who is a huge fan of Jane Austen’s, stepped in to cover. Take it away, Jamie!

Everything about Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new musical version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is rich in detail. From the set design, anchored by a giant ribbon of a swirl that extends up into the rafters of the Courtyard Theatre, to the splendid Regency costumes, to the talented cast, each detail has been attended to with great care.

And indeed, this is a production about the details.

Jane Austen’s novels are a product of her time. They are not epic tales of grand revolutions in France or even of a town being transformed by a trickster Music Man. Rather, Austen’s works are small stories from a time when a letter could change everything, and granting someone a lock of your hair could be seen as practically a marriage proposal. Big drama happened in polite conversation in drawing rooms and parlors and people’s emotions were expected to be kept quiet lest the merest appearance of impropriety ruined a person’s prospects in life.

These small stories do not, at first, seem to be the stuff of musical theater, where characters bursting into large-scale dance routines and epic love ballads is typically accepted. Chicago Shakespeare Theater did a very smart thing by commissioning Paul Gordon to write and compose this adaptation. Gordon has done this sort of thing before, when his 2001 Tony-nominated music and lyrics for Jane Eyre brought Charlotte Bronte’s novel – in which nearly entire chapters take place purely in the thoughts of the leading lady – to stirring life. Like Gordon’s Jane Eyre, the songs in Sense and Sensibility are lush, and burst forth from moments where the characters cannot hold back their emotions for another moment, and simply must sing of the deep pain of grief, or of madness caused by lost love – all things they cannot express in polite society. (Forget that your heart is breaking, dear. Would you like some tea?)

Sense and Sensibility is the lively story of the two Dashwood sisters – Elinor and Marianne – and their romantic entanglements after the death of their father and the greed of other family members leaves them broke and forces them to move to a small country cottage. While both women are clever, they’re very different. The level-headed Elinor pines for Edward Ferrars, though her financial situation means their union won’t be approved by his domineering family. Poetry-loving Marianne captures the heart of a wealthy bachelor who happens to be on “the wrong side of five and thirty” (he’s 36, by the way) but instead gives her love and attentions to a handsome young man who appears to have stepped right out of a romantic novel, but may not be as perfect as he appears.

Shannon Rietkirk and Megan McGinnis play the sisters Dashwood, and with their strong chemistry and the way their lovely singing voices blend together, it’s easy to believe their bond, as well as to care for each sister individually. The suitors are as dashing as one would expect. Wayne Wilcox is adorably awkward as Elinor’s beloved Edward, and Peter Saide cuts an impressive rug as Mr. Willoughby, the very embodiment of the man of Marianne’s dreams. Yet it’s Sean Allan Krill’s sublime performance as Colonel Brandon, the overlooked and less flashy suitor, who becomes the man to root for. On opening night, Krill’s big number deservedly drew the evening’s biggest applause.

Lest you think it’s all repressed romantic feelings, please note that this show is funny. Very funny, in fact. Jane Austen was a keen observer of the quirks of people, and in supporting comedic roles, Chicago theater veterans Michael Aaron Lindner and Paula Scrofano (as kind and friendly relations) and David Schlumpf and Tiffany Scott (as unkind and not at all friendly relations) provide plenty of laughs.

Barbara Gaines’ direction keeps things appropriately simple and moving briskly, and she’s aided greatly by Susan E. Mickey’s excellent costume designs, every one of which illuminates the character wearing it. Willoughby’s coat is red as blood and swirls around him like a dream, while Colonel Brandon’s coat is a simpler blue. While the clothes of the sisters Dashwood are both lovely, Elinor’s are more demure, while Marianne’s more flowy skirts help illuminate her youth and passion. (And I can’t even talk about the amazing things Paula Scrofano’s Mrs. Jennings wears, except to say that they’re divine.)

For those for whom Jane Austen isn’t beloved, this production may still appeal. Wisely, CST’s adaptation trims away a great deal of society comings and goings and minor characters and turns the novel into a small chamber musical. This helps keep the focus on the essential characters and what the story is truly about: two sisters, and their love stories, as told through witty dialogue and lovely songs.

I cannot imagine it being done any better.

Sense and Sensibility plays through June 7 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. More info here >

A funny and fine “Forum” at Porchlight

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They say tragedy is easy, yet comedy is hard. And in watching Porchlight’s delightful production of the hit 1962 musical comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I took note of how deftly this hard-working cast navigates Burt Shevelove’s farcical book and Stephen Sondheim’s daffy yet deceptively dense music and lyrics.

In full transparency, Porchlight marks the first production of Forum I’ve seen — this includes the movie that starred Zero Mostel recreating the role that won him the Tony Award (and for which Nathan Lane earned the same accolades in the ’96 Broadway revival). Yet I’m glad this was my first foray into the forum — it’s a very solid and satisfying production.

Leading this effort, the short and compact Bill Larkin makes for a cunning and cute Pseudolus, the wily Roman slave who’ll do anything to become free. It’s a performance that rivals Sweeney Todd, another iconic Sondheim musical Porchlight presented last season, in the amount of energy and gusto required keep the engine of the play churning. Larkin manages this herculean task skillfully, striking a good balance between vaudevillian slap-stick and sincerity.

Director Michael Weber surrounds Larkin with a diverse cast of musical comedy pros, with a few unexpected highlights. Of those, the lanky Miles Blim serves as a perfect foil for Larkin by bringing genuine guilelessness to the role of Hero — the young slave owner whom Pseudolus persuades into freeing if he’s able to unite Hero with his equally naive love interest, Philia (a sweet Sarah Lynn Robinson). As fellow slave Hysterium, Matt Crowle demonstrates his great gift of physical comedy. Read the full review on the Huffington Post >

First Wives Club Musical Feels Like a First Draft

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Faith Prince. Those two words served as the motivation for me to visit this pre-Broadway tryout of The First Wives Club: The Musical. I consider Prince among the very best musical comedy stars — right up there with Carol Channing and Judy Holliday. The Tony-winning actress is the sort of artist who can spin comedic gold out of tin — and do so in a way that’s both grounded and human.

And boy, does she earn her oats in this wobbly musical adaptation of the hit 1996 film, which is based on the 1992 novel by Olivia Goldsmith. Playing the heart-broken but bold and brassy Brenda (the Bette Midler role), Prince overcomes material that strangely wrings most of the glee from the original source material.

If anything, it made me respect her more. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

A Transcendent ‘Carousel’ at Lyric Opera

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Unlike Guys and Dolls, Fiddler or The Music Man, Carousel isn’t a show that can simply rest on the strengths of its material. While a good number of classic musicals can lean on their score and inner charms to suffice for a pleasurable evening, Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1945 masterpiece requires a director and design team with a rock-solid vision and perspective. Otherwise, this show, which touches on the very tender themes of innocence lost, domestic abuse and the bittersweet promise of second chances, can easily fall of its axis and roll right into the orchestra pit.

However, under Rob Ashford’s sublime direction, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production is a Carousel for the ages. Not only is it exquisitely sung and masterfully acted by a cast of Broadway veterans, its hypnotic production design by Paolo Ventura elevates the dreamlike and otherworldly aspects of this heartbreaking love story.

This isn’t a petticoat and ribbon Carousel, as was the case with past productions I’ve seen (most recently Light Opera Works solid — if sanitized — production in 2010). Ashford has smartly moved the action to the depression era, which, unexpectedly, dusts off any of the stuffiness that typically clouds the material.

And what a cast. As brooding carnival barker Billy Bigelow, Steven Pasquale gives one of the most heart-stopping performances I’ve seen in a musical in recent memory. Pasquale could so easily take advantage of the Lyric’s size to make this a bellowing, swaggering performance. But, Ashford and Pasquale have delivered a much more complex and arresting creature — one who seems lost and constantly searching for an answer. Some may feel he’s underplaying the role, but, to me, he’s living it — and when he does unleash those moments of raw passion and fire, such as in his soul-searing (and show-stopping) “Soliloquy,” watch out. Read the full review on the Huffington Post >

Porchlight’s ‘Sondheim on Sondheim’ Explores the Art of Making Art

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The cast of Porchlight Music Theatre’s “Putting it Together”

In the new musical revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, the chorus opens the second act with a self-deprecating number about how Stephen Sondheim is a “God.” Though the purpose of this second act opener is tongue-in-cheek (Sondheim himself wrote it), I’d argue that most people in the opening night audience of Porchlight Music Theatre’s incandescent production certainly felt like they were worshiping one of America’s most gifted artists.

As any Sond-head knows, a handful of Sondheim revues, such as Putting it Together or Marry Me a Little, already exist. However, as smartly arranged as they are, they often feel like a crisp and hollow examination of Sondheim’s canon. However, Sondheim on Sondheim, which was conceived by Sondheim’s long-time collaborator James Lapine and premiered on Broadway in 2010, is the first revue that actually seems to have a firm point of view and an emotional core. Read more on The Huffington Post >

Black Ties, Boleyns and News Boys: Three Shows in Four days

The challenge was simple: Three wildly different shows in four days. My 68-year-old mother joined me and provided her input. Here’s the recap:

Living the History — 125 Years of the Auditorium Theatre
Chicago’s historic landmark performance venue, the Auditorium Theatre, received a classy and compact 125th birthday celebration on Dec. 9. Following an introduction by emcee John Mahoney, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered a few words on the importance of the venue in delivering world-class art to the city. And then, performers representing the wide range of the Auditorium’s programming entertained the mostly black-tie and befurred audience.

Highlights included performances by Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s brass ensemble, performances by dancers from Alvin Ailey and Joffrey Ballet, and the star of the night, Broadway powerhouse Patti LuPone, whose grand grand-aunt, soprano Adelina Patti, performed at the venue when it opened in 1889. The only misstep in this glorious evening was the inclusion of a random rock band to represent the various rock concerts the venue has hosted since the ’60s.

But all was forgiven when, during the finale, the legendary theatre’s side panels flanking the proscenium flew up into the rafters revealing the backstage, stage hands and technical crew. It took my breath away. A very fitting tribute to an army of people who make the art: it’s more than just the performers on the stage — it’s the team behind the curtain who make it happen.

Mom rating: “Beautiful evening and amazing acoustics, but that rock band was loud.”

Read the full report on “The Huffington Post” >>

The Sun Does Come Out in This Delightful ‘Annie’ Tour

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Kids and animals onstage in a daffy and heartwarming musical comedy? Depending on whom you talk to, this could either be a horror show or a holiday delight.

Typically, I lean toward the latter — one can only take so much sweetness in one sitting. However, Annie, especially this unashamedly endearing new tour directed by one of the musical’s originators Martin Charnin, relentlessly reminds you that you’re never fully dressed without a smile.

And smile you do — my face literally hurt by the jubilant curtain call.

And, quite ironically (at least, in my case), it’s all about the kids and the dog that carries this first-rate production. Charnin goes back to the basics — having directed more than a dozen productions of this beloved musical over the past 35 years, he knows exactly what strings to pull to make the show zip right into the heart. This isn’t some revisionist, modern Annie (that version is hitting movie theaters in December). This is a full-scale production of the Annie we all grew up with. Read the full review on The Huffingon Post >>

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