Bailiwick Chicago’s ‘Carrie’ Hits the Heart But Not the Horror

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There are essentially two reactions I get when telling people I’m going to see Carrie: The Musical:

- Reaction 1: People who know the musical’s sacred lore as one of the biggest flops in musical theatre history and are incredibly pumped to find out how truly bad the show was/is.

- Reaction 2: People who look back as me quizzically and say something along the lines of, “That Carrie? They made a musical out of that? Why?”

Both are valid responses. However, I’m mostly pleased to report that Carrie: The Musical, as presented in the Chicago-area premiere by Bailiwick Chicago, is a fine production of an ok musical. Sure, the show was a “so bad it’s good” mess when it opened — and quickly closed — on Broadway in 1988. Despite landmark performances from a young Linzi Hateley and a ferocious Betty Buckley, the show drowned in its own excessiveness and obscene misdirection and became a cult classic survived through YouTube clips and audio bootlegs. Then, in 2012, the musical’s authors retooled the show to become a more intimate exploration of teenage angst, fears and love, with the telekinetic undertones taking a backseat for emotional truth.

In the true Chicago theatrical tradition of rock-solid ensemble acting, director Michael Driscoll has elevated the material to a level that I’m sure will surprise many who plan to attend this for a campy, bloody good time. Most of this is due to the outstanding cast, which features a heartbreaking performance in Callie Johnson as Carrie White. Johnson has found a calling in portraying introverted and fiercely passionate young women, as seen in her work as the daughter in Next to Normal at Drury Lane and, to a degree, the unassuming reporter in Porchlight’s Pal Joey, where she stole the show and won a Jeff Award. As Carrie, Johnson fully embodies a woman on the cusp of a huge change (budding telekentic powers aside), but not being emotionally equipped to sort it all out. While not demonstrating a rock belt that Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore’s ballad-heavy (and highly uneven) score seems to require, Johnson radiates truth and emotional honesty that surpasses any vocal limitations. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

An energetic but emotionally empty ‘Motown the Musical’

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Twice a day, on the way to and from work, I pass the Oriental Theatre, where the national tour of Motown the Musical is running through August 9. Of all the shows that have played at the Oriental, this one is unique in that I constantly see couples, groups and families pausing when seeing the show’s marquee, grouping together and posing for a selfie. Clearly, Motown isn’t so much a record production label as it’s an icon of change and music revolution that taps into something resonant — an era gone by.

Arriving on the tidal wave of its hit Broadway run, Motown the Musical is pretty much what you’d expect from a vehicle designed to showcase a library of chart-toppers: a slick cavalcade of toe-tapping, hip-swaying tunes stitched together with a sketch of a storyline. What makes Motown the Musical a distinct challenge from most other Jukebox musicals are two factors. First, the massive catalog of material — Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., who wrote the musical’s book, had hundreds of top 10 hits to choose from, with artists such as Smokey Robinson, The Jackson Five, The Supremes, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder at his disposal. Where do you start? Second, Motown was instrumental in changing the sound of the airwaves during a seminal time in our country’s history. The story behind the music is just as, if not more, compelling than the music itself.

Whittling all this down for a three-hour show was surly no small feat — and what we’ve arrived at is frantic fractions of iconic musical performances jam-packed together (though, faithfully reproduced by a hard-working ensemble who play countless roles) into a condensed explosion of sound and light projected against the dimly lit backdrop of social change. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

It’s still a tasty good time at ’5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche’

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Rachel Farmer, Megan Johns and Thea Lux in The New Colony’s “5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche”

Long live the egg! I remember when I first encountered The New Colony’s wacky, wild creation that is 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche. It was June 2010, and “The Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein” made their grand entrance as part of Sketchbook X at the Chopin Theatre. A 10-minute sketch among a three-hour evening of 10 minute sketches, Lesbians presented a landmine of comedic possibility.

Knowing they had a good thing on their hands, The New Colony, under the creative direction of writers Andrew Hobgood and Evan Linder, expanded it into a 60-minute one-act, and it was among my Top 10 of 2011.

Fast forward four years, and we’re back, full circle, at the Chopin Theatre, with most of the original ladysisters intact. Yet, this time we’re in Chopin’s basement space, which works well for this show that celebrates an era (1956, to be exact) when bomb shelters could double as venues for well-mannered quiche breakfasts.

This unassuming show, in which an annual quiche breakfast goes off the rails and transforms into an impromptu coming out party, manages to bake in a whole heap of comedy and social satire into a brief one act. While the show has become a breakout hit for The New Colony (following a respectable off-Broadway run, this production is a commercial run in partnership with Chicago Commercial Collective — a first for the company), it still maintains a fringy-flair — right down to the dress donned by head ladysister Lulie Stanwyck (A steely Rachel Farmer) which seemed to be unraveling before our eyes (someone please spring for a pair of embroidery scissors for these poor widows).

Megan Johns, who originated the role of Wren Robin, captures, perhaps most effectively, the zany insanity of the proceedings which delighted me back at Sketchbook, while the reserved Caitlin Chuckta, as polite Ginny Cadbury, manages to score the biggest laugh of the evening, of which there are many. Director Sarah Gitenstein keeps this tight ensemble moving smoothly, including through a rather confounding revelation in the final moments that almost derails the evening. But just when things seem to get a little too saccharine, some shock value is peppered in to keep you on your toes.

Whether you enjoy your quiche with or without meat, I encourage you to join this Sisterhood.

“5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche” plays through June 8 at the Chopin Theatre. More info here >

A Rollicking ‘How to Succeed’ at Porchlight

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Tyler Ravelson, Matthias Austin and John Keating in Porchlight’s ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’

When the hit musical comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying premiered in 1961, it was geared toward those weary businessmen who attended the theatre after a long, hard day at the office. A rollicking good time, H2$ is both nonsensicle fun while offering a dark commentary on the follies of big Corporate America.

We have a fascination with duping the “cold corporate setup.” I haven’t met a single person who sits in a cube who hasn’t smirked when the movie “Office Space” is mentioned. “The Office” and “Man Men” also capture our attention because they riff on cutthroat office life, both now and then.

H2$, the precursor to those hit shows, strikes that sweet spot between cutting and comedy. Consider this most satisfyingly scathing lyric between the corporate ladder-climbing J. Pierrepont Finch, who charms his way to the executive wing, and Mr. Twimble, the nebbish head mailroom clerk at the perfectly plausible World Wide Wicket Company:

Finch: When they want brilliant thinking
From employees
Twimble: That is no concern of mine.
Finch: Suppose a man of genius
Makes suggestions?
Twimble: Watch that genius get suggested to resign.
Finch: So you play it the company way?
Twimble: All company policy is by me OK.
Finch: You’ll never rise up to the top.
Twimble: But there’s one thing clear:
Whoever the company fires,
I will still be here.

This lyric shows us why H2$ was so far ahead of its time. Before the age of massive layoffs and agressive outsourcing, loyalty was synonymous with stability. But, as is well known, it’s every man for himself, and Finch is well ahead of the curve.

Porchlight Music Theatre’s rollicking production of this jazzy show is everything I wanted on a drizzly Tuesday night. Director Rob Lindley certainly knows his way around this classic musical comedy, and has cast it with a bevy of delightful character actors who make up this wacky wicket world. The compact Tyler Ravelson, as unassuming go-getter Finch, smartly underplays Finch’s drive to great affect. As his equally driven love interest Rosemary, Elizabeth Telford is a clear-eyed presence with a bright and pleasing voice.

Every good musical comedy needs a dastardly foil, and as Bud Frump, the CEO’s weasely nephew, John Keating delights in fruitlessly thwarting Finch’s corporate climb. And just when you think he’s stolen the show, Iris Lieberman, as stuffy executive secretary Miss Jones, lets her hair down and the production elevates into the stratosphere.

Brenda Didier demonstrates yet again why she’s Chicago’s go-to choreographer, tapping into the colorful dance styles of the period, while Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set design is a pop of pink, teal and tangerine.

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” plays through June 1 at Stage 773. More info here >

Six reasons to see Lyric Opera’s ‘The Sound of Music’

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Jenn Gambatese leads a lesson in song in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “The Sound of Music”

Opera purists have nothing on me. As much as I imagine opera buffs recoil at the mention of R&H being performed on the Lyric stage, I raise an eyebrow when I see such classic American musicals listed alongside Tosca and Tannhäuser. Because, really, The Sound of Music doesn’t require operatic songstylings (aside from that Everest of a first act closer, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” which soprano Christine Brewer tackles with gusto), but simple and truthful storytelling. And, from my experience, opera doesn’t quite embrace simple or truthful. It’s all BIG EMOTIONS and GRAND OPULENCE. And the last opera/musical hybrid I saw at the Lyric was an odd amalgamation of naturalistic (and amplified) musical theatre actors paired alongside “park and bark” operatic singers overly enunciating phrases such as “can’t help loving dat man of mine.” Disorientating.

But Lyric’s latest effort proved a delightful surprise. Here are seven reasons why you should check it out:

1) Jenn Gambatese is everything you want in a Maria, the singing nun with a penchant for roaming the hills rather than kneeling in the Abby. She’s goofy, she’s relatable, she gets along well with children — and can even effortlessly hit a high C while picking up a small child. She also manages to convincingly fall in love with Billy Zane’s Captain von Trapp, despite him giving the impression he’d rather be home dusting his Blockbuster Movie Award.


Watch at the 1:30 mark as Gambatese hoists a mini von Trapp (Nicole Scimeca) on her hip while flipping to the key of Julie Andrews.

2) The kids are the most adorable thing ever. Especially the littlest one. Claudia? Hazel? Ruby? I don’t know – I was too enraptured by their ability to be cute and sing in flawless harmony while riding bikes across the Lyric’s cavernous stage (which was also a little scary – the last thing we needed was a von Trapp careening into the Lyric’s orchestra pit).

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Can you handle this Austrian adorableness?

3) Scenic eye-candy! It’s like we’re actually amongst the Austrian hills, without the wildlife or climbing. Set designer Michael Yeargan has fashioned some eye-popping scenery that really highlights how overwhelmed the modest Maria must feel in the Captain’s grand homestead. Not since Norma Desmond’s floating living room in ALW’s Sunset Boulevard have I seen such a swanky onstage pad.

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Maria gets freaky with the Captain, while Elsa throws shade from above. Also: scenery!

4) The orchestra. With 37 players in the pit led by Broadway veteran Rob Fisher, Rodgers & Hammerstein has never sounded better. Fisher could have upped the tempos a bit (especially in “The Lonely Goatherd”), but the score certainly sparkles.

5) Chicago cred. Looking over the list of bios, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of well-respected Chicago actors, including Susan Moniz and Cory Goodrich as two of the nuns who sing of solving a problem like Maria. (In fact, Ms. Goodrich understudies Maria — I’d love to see her take on the role). Frau Schmidt, Captain von Trapp’s trusty housekeeper, is given a burst of warmth and charm by my personal favorite Chicago leading lady, Mary Ernster. And Porchlight Music Theatre Artistic Director Michael Weber plays a host of roles.

6) The nuns. Aside from the full orchestra and the grand sets, I wasn’t sure what the world of opera really brought to this piece. Most of the key parts and scenes are played by amazing musical theatre actors, so it was like a musical in a Broadway house with some sweet upgrades. However, during the wedding scene, an army of nuns stepped forward and raised the roof with their choral stylings, and I got the opera chills.

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The nuns blast the joint with their vocal pyrotechnics, thus disorientating the Nazis and allowing the von Trapps to literally climb every mountain.

“The Sound of Music” plays through May 25 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. More info here >

Interview with ‘Buyer & Cellar’ Star, Michael Urie

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Michael Urie in ‘Buyer and Cellar’

Actor Michael Urie is best known for his work as colorful and meddling assistant Marc St. James in the long running ABC series, Ugly Betty. His scenes with the statuesque Vanessa Williams exemplified two actors at the top of their game who clearly delight in being bad. However, Urie, a Julliard-trained actor, has significant stage credits, including notable Broadway runs in Angels in America and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Though, a seemingly underground play based on a strange-but-true pop-culture footnote quietly became a break-out hit for both playwright Jonathan Tolins and its star, Urie. Buyer & Cellar tells the story of a struggling actor (Urie) who takes on the oddest of odd jobs by working in Barbra Streisand’s basement mall (which is actually a real thing that exists in Ms. Streisand’s Malibu home). In doing so, he encounters the star and awkwardness and hilarity ensues.

After playing the role for more than 300 performances off-Broadway, Urie recently left the show to prepare for a multi-city tour, with the first stop in Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse, May 6 – June 15. I recently had the chance to chat with the charming Urie, who is clearly enthusiastic about this opportunity to bring this one-person comedy to new audiences across the country.

I see on Twitter that you’ve been exploring Chicago. What’s your experience been like?

This is actually my first visit to Chicago, and I’ve only had a few days to explore. There’s so much I want to do; so much I want to see. This really is a remarkable theatre town. Last night I went to Second City and caught their latest revue. It was so funny, and so polished! And they ended the act with a section of improv — which, as a performer, terrifies me. But they do it so, so well!

What about this show has made it such a hit? On paper, it seems so niche, very off-Broadway. Is it the Streisand factor?

Well, Steisand is what got the play on the map. Absolutely. But I think what’s kept it running is it’s simply good storytelling. It’s not a sketch — it’s a play. And Jonathan [Tolin, playwright] has done a great job making this story something that audiences respond to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard guys telling their dates, “I didn’t think I was gonna like this, but I really got into it.” It also requires people to use their imagination — as it’s a one man show, it requires an audience to fill in the characters I’m playing, and not many shows offer that opportunity. Too often everything is spoon fed to us and we become passive observers. You need to be actively engaged to follow this play’s twists and turns — and there are many.

Read the full interview on The Huffington Post >

Making Chemistry: A Chat with the Stars of Goodman’s ‘Venus in Fur’

In Goodman Theatre’s intense production of David Ives’ hit play, Venus in Fur, palpable onstage chemistry is critical (read my review here). It’s what elevates this two-person dark comedy from a tawdry romp into a thrilling exploration of dominance and power.

In Goodman’s production, Rufus Collins and Amanda Drinkall embody Thomas and Vanda, the writer/director of the play-within-the-play and the unexpected actress who isn’t exactly who she seems. I had the chance to chat with both actors to get their viewpoints on establishing authentic onstage chemistry.

So you’ve just completed a Saturday matinee of the show. Do matinee audiences differ from evening audiences — particularly given the scandalous subject matter? Are they more vocal?

Rufus Collins (RC): Well, matinee audiences typically are more quiet and reserved, which, honestly, does make it more difficult to perform this play. But this particular audience was pretty engaged, which was nice.

Amanda Drinkall (AD): Yes, but those matinee ladies really do love this show. It’s great. I’m sure Shades of Grey has something to do with it.

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How aware were you of this play before the audition process? Did you know what you were getting yourself into?

RC: I had read the play and seen a regional production, but honestly didn’t know how I felt about it. It wasn’t until we started rehearsal and dug our feet in that I really understood what made this play so fascinating, and I feel that comes across in this production.

AD: Same with me. I had also read the play when I heard it was coming to the Goodman about a year ago, and wasn’t sure what to think of it. Working with [our director] Joanie [Schultz] really helped us unlock this play. Her deep understanding and passion for the material helped us gain a better understanding into the themes of gender, dominance and submission.

Did you audition together? When did you meet?

RC: We actually auditioned separately and met on the first day of rehearsal.

Really? So how did you move from the table read to “hey, I’m going to straddle you shirtless now.”

RC: Well, on the first day, Amanda really broke the ice by running up to me, leaping in the air and wrapping her legs and arms around my torso.

AD: [Laughing] Rufus is saying I hugged him.

RC: We didn’t have much time to get this show up and ready for an audience, so we just had to quickly gain trust in each other and be ready for anything.

AD: And each day in rehearsal it’s, “Ok, I’m going to do this scene without a shirt today, and now, without pants.”

Read the full interview on The Huffington Post >

A high-stakes ‘Road Show’ still struggles to find its way

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Andrew Rothenberg, McKinley Carter, Michael Aaron Lindner and Anne Gunn in ChiShakes’ “Road Show.” Photo by Liz Lauren

“Art isn’t easy,” sings the frustrated artist George in Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George. While a completely different show in both tone and substance, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Road Show puts that phrase front and center. Not because this show — which deals with a pair of real-life sibling con artists who found their fortune during the heyday of the Alaskan Gold Rush and the South Florida real estate boom of the ’20s — has anything to do with painting, but because this musical has proved a puzzle of a creative challenge for this team.

Back in 2003, I visited an earlier version of the property at the Goodman. Then called Bounce, the show had a core of an interesting idea surrounded by lots of excess and noise, including a running time of 2 hours and 40 minutes. And at the end of the evening, I left scratching my head wondering what the point of it all was — two unlikeable brothers do unlikeable things driven by greed (but under the banner of The American Dream) and sing a bouncy ditty at the end about what they haven’t learned along the way.

Fast forward to 2014, and, in a testament to the show’s themes of resilience and reinvention, Sondheim and company hunkered down and reemerged with a renamed, simplified and refocused 90-minute one-act. A few secondary characters have been left in this road show’s dust, including a blowzy sidekick chorus gal (played by the delightfully dry Michelle Pawk at the Goodman).

Under the steady hand of director Gary Griffin, this iteration succeeds in many important ways thanks to smart and specific staging and a rock-solid cast. Scott Davis’s streamlined scenic design features a giant map, with pin lights indicating the location of this sprawling journey. A multitasking 10-person ensemble (which includes some epic Chicago talent) doubles as instrumentalists, coloring in the mostly piano-led accompaniment while giving Sondheim’s jaunty score an appropriately roustabout saloon feel.

Yet, despite all the effort, the material, which still focuses on two very flawed folks, doesn’t grab hold as the creators seem to intend.

Leveraging the intimacy of the 200 seat upstairs venue, Griffin ensures the story remains centered around the two brothers — Addison and Wilson Mizner (played by Michael Aaron Lindner and Andrew Rothenberg, respectively). After gaining ground courtesy of the Klondike Gold Rush, Addison, the more sympathetic of the two, flees from his brother’s high-rolling lifestyle for the more predictive world of investing — which also proves to have its risks. He eventually finds steady success through his innate creative talents, which evolve into designing elaborate summer homes for wealthy families. Along the way, Addison finds love in a young artist, Hollis, which eventually erodes when Wilson reenters Addison’s life to begin a new high-stakes conquest: real estate development.

What makes Road Show equal parts interesting and aggravating is that while the two central characters experience hardships and heartbreak, they end up right where they started: two rascals kicking dust. Which, in itself, is provocative — we may think we have control of our destiny, but our innate drivers eventually lead us down a certain path. And while Addison — especially as played by the thoughtful and empathetic Linder — suffers the most tragic course in his internal struggle to extinguish his desire for excess, it makes you wish that he’d stand up to his brother and build a happy home for him and his partner. But where is the high stakes excitement in that?

Still, the show feels munch more structurally sound than a decade ago, and the themes of resilience and reinvention are resonant, if unsatisfyingly realized.

“Road Show” plays through May 4 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Upstairs space. More info here >

Related: Making Sondheim Sing: Interview with Michael Mahler, Music Director of Chicago Shakespeare’s Road Show

Goodman’s Venus in Fur: A Power Play with a Twist

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Amanda Drinkall and Rufus Collins in Goodman’s “Venus in Fur”

Where to start with David Ives’ twisting, tantalizing and tawdry dark comedy? This is the kind of work that delights and surprises in the moment, yet following the event you begin to look past the intoxicating veneer to unravel the underlying puzzle. And you wonder: Is there any soul beneath the heaving bodice? Or is it all just a carefully constructed fantasy of leather collars and kinky boots?

In Venus and Fur, which is receiving its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theatre, Ives has many provocative things to day about gender, dominance, desire and the evolution of the relationship between man and woman — particularly in the bedroom. Using a mostly obscure nineteenth-century erotic novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose surname was the inspiration for the term “masochism”) as the entry point for exploring these topics, we’re challenged to disrobe and examine sexual tropes — including what they say about society as a whole.

Director Joanie Schultz has assembled a perfectly matched pair to bring this cheeky two-hander, which proved a hit on Broadway in 2012, to life. Amanda Drinkall, a ravishing local actress who constantly surprises with her seemingly unlimited number of colors and textures, has landed a breakout role that perfectly showcases her talents. As Vonda, the adorably scatterbrained actress who bursts into Thomas’s audition room, Drinkall wins us over with a goofball exterior that slowly and shockingly strips away to reveal a much more complex fascination. Rufus Collins, as the dog-headed playwright, producer and director of this play-within-a-play, protests that his work, which is based on the Sacher-Masoch novel, isn’t anything more than a study in two passionate and intriguing people. While Vonda, the eager auditionee, scrutinizes his motives, she revels in the reading. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

ChiShakes’ ‘Gypsy’: This Rose isn’t quite ready for her turn

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This has been a month of revisiting beloved musicals. First it was Porchlight’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, which offered a smoldering take on the beloved Fats Waller revue. I followed this with The Hypocrites Into the Woods, a brave production that frustrated as much as it fascinated.

And now: Gypsy – a show I’ve seen probably more than any other, ranging from the recent Broadway revival with the ferocious Patti LuPone (which I saw when it was at New York’s City Center) to a charmingly clunky community theatre production in Highland Park.

My most recent Gypsy prior to ChiShakes’ was Drury Lane’s highly professional, yet passionless, production, which featured a perfectly satisfying (and very well-sung) lead performance in Klea Blackhurst as “Mama” Rose — the uncompromising stage mother who’s the driving force in this musical fable about burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee

After being blown away by Gary Griffin’s Follies and Sunday in the Park with George, I looked forward to this Gypsy with great anticipation. I was ready for Griffin and team to peel back the layers and give us an emotionally resonant experience unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Sadly, this Gypsy settles somewhere in the grey middle.

What’s most frustrating is all the elements were at hand to make this a success, starting with the casting of Canadian stage vet Louise Pitre as Rose. Pitre has found a career playing tragic and tough women who’ve battled against the odds, including Edith Piaf and Fantine. She also earned a Tony nomination as the independent single mother Donna Sheridan in Mamma Mia. (Read my recent interview with Ms. Pitre here.)

Pitre has all the potential to make for a compelling Rose. She’s gritty, charming and earthy. She prowls the stage like a tiger and bellows out a laugh — she’s a good-time-gal Rose.

However, despite all that, she never feels fully in control.

Rose is someone who’s always 10 steps ahead. Every cell in her body is focused on realizing her dream (be it misdirected or not): to make her daughter a star.

Yet Pitre, who seemed to be battling extreme vocal difficulty with the brassy Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim score on press night, comes off as someone on the defense vs. the offense. In short: this Rose doesn’t have command. Which, to me, is essential.

This is particularly frustrating when I think of all the more than capable Chicago actresses who were passed over for an out-of-town experiment.

But it’s not just Rose that’s the issue: Griffin’s direction, which includes a few interesting scene changes, suffers from a lack of drive. Take for example a pivotal scene late in Act 2 where, following years of pushing down his rage, the good-natured Herbie (a lost-at-sea Keith Kupferer) stands up to Rose. Pitre, sitting, has her back to the audience while Herbie very passively asserts he’s walking out. If I wasn’t already nodding off, I would have missed the confrontation entirely.

A moment that should chill us in its emotional intensity simply slips by.

But all is not lost: there are some bright spots to celebrate. The 14 piece orchestra blasts the joint with brassy new arrangements (by music director Rick Fox), including a very well-played overture (though, the wailing trumpet solo has oddly been cut). Jessica Rush ranks among the top three Louise’s I’ve seen, and, despite Griffin’s clunky direction which isn’t helped by ChiShake’s thrust stage, she nails the tricky strip sequence, which requires an actress, in a span of less than 10 minutes, to show Louise’s rapid ascent from fumbling tomboy to the sparkling creation that is Gypsy Rose Lee. And, as is usually the case, the trio of “Gotta Have a Gimmick” strippers steal the show. Particularly Chicago favorite Barbara Robertson, who in just a few short scenes, offers up a Tessie Tura with more grit and drive than any other moment in this ultimately lackluster effort.

“Gypsy” plays through March 23 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. More info here >

A revelatory ‘Into the Woods’ at The Hypocrites

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Into the Woods is one of those shows that feels like a comfortable, old friend. I basically grew up on a well-worn VHS of the original Broadway production, which seemed like a work so tailor-made to the remarkable original ensemble cast, featuring stand-out performances by Johanna Gleason (who won a Tony for her work) and Bernadette Peters, that woe to anyone who attempted to recreate the magic.

I’ve since seen a number of productions over the years, and while they’ve each had their moments of brilliance, none of them have been completely satisfying or particularly revelatory. I’ve concluded that the material can hold up on its own if the director goes for honesty and truth in the storytelling and avoids any over-conceptualized approach.

So, it was with some trepidation that I visited The Hypocrites’ production, as this is a company that thrives in deconstructing well-worn classics and finding bold, playful ways to tell the story. I also saw that the cast had been condensed, with actors doubling, even tripling their roles. And then I saw the production photos.

But, I challenged myself to go with an open mind. I’ve gone Into the Woods enough times. It’s now considered a contemporary classic — let’s see what this innovative company can do to bring out new colors.

And, in the end, I’m so glad I went. To me, it felt like this production is for those who grew up on the show. Considering those of us theatre nerds who discovered the show (and Sondheim) via a high school production or the OBC recording are now adults with families of our own, its themes of children, adulthood and family resonate deeply. It challenges us to see it new and reflect, while also offering a knowing wink at the material.

And I guess this brings me to my issue. The actors, particularly those who are doubling and tripling parts, are constrained in their storytelling. I look at Hillary Marren, who plays The Witch, one of Cinderella’s step sisters and Cinderella’s mother. In doing so, she’s asked to snap into various personas, sometimes in the middle of a musical phrase. As a result, Marren has chosen to make her Witch stand out amongst her other duties by offering a stylized caricature with distracting Bernadette-esque vocal tics, which distances us from her story.

Smartly, director Geoff Button has The Baker (the fantastic Joel Ewing) and The Baker’s Wife (a daffy Allison Hendrix) avoiding any double duty — they are the heart and soul of this show, after all. I’d also wager that the Witch is also one of those core roles — she’s the moral compass, the realist, the catalyst. She needs to remain a constant; not worrying about a quick-change.

In general, the tone of this production feels a little too knowing, a little too self-aware, which in many ways undermines the message of growing up by going into the woods.

BUT — and this is a huge but — despite all these reservations, I left the Mercury Theatre feeling like I “know things now.” I visited an old friend with a new perspective. Moments I took for granted in previous productions struck me in new and, dare I say it, revelatory ways. Sure, Button’s production annoyed me at times with its heavy conceptualization, but I found myself in a constant state of awe as this cast kept challenging what I expected from this show. Particularly in the last 20 minutes, which took by breath away – I won’t say any more but that you should experience it for yourself.

It also didn’t hurt that the musical direction, by Matt Deitchman, is spot-on. Sondheim is well-represented by this vocally astute cast.

“Into the Woods” plays through March 30 at the Mercury Theatre. More info here >

Porchlight’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” Delivers Smoldering Sass

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The joint is certainly jumpin’ at Stage 773. Porchlight’s rollicking production of the “Fats” Waller revue, Ain’t Misbehavin’, playing through March 9, is the kind of show that offers enough heat and harmony to melt through the layers of ice that have crystallized Chicago.

This isn’t the shiny, slick production of this oft-produced musical revue you’re probably used to (and which played Goodman Theatre in 2008). This cast and creative team, led by director/choreographer Brenda Didier, celebrates the working-class spirit of Waller’s tunes. There is no fourth wall. This is a boozy, after hours party, and we’re all invited. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

A tale of two snow witches: House Theatre’s ‘Rose and the Rime’ and Filament’s ‘The Snow Queen’

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“The Snow Queen”

I grew up in northern Michigan, so I have a healthy affinity for that white flakey stuff. Not so much the polar vortex, but when it’s hovering above 15 degrees, I’m good.

So, in combining my love of snow and theatre, over the past three days I checked out two highly inventive productions that both explore winter and the problems it creates — especially if you’re a summer soul trapped in a winter town.

The House Theatre of Chicago’s remounting of their critically acclaimed Rose and the Rime takes us into the world of Radio Falls, a small town cast under the chilling spell of a perpetual winter by an allusive snow witch. Young Rose (the spritely Paige Collins) makes the most of it by sledding about and gulping down hot chocolate. Her tense but well-meaning Uncle Roger (Michael E. Smith) has raised Rose ever since her parents met their fate when the town was cursed. Rose, in all her naivety and fearlessness, goes on a quest to save her town and get a gold coin that will cure all.

Following a series of circumstances involving wolves and winter storms, she succeeds, but the result isn’t what anyone anticipated — except for Uncle Roger, who sees history repeating itself. But by then, perhaps it’s too late?

I admire House Theatre’s commitment to the art of storytelling — especially in telling tales that explore the dark side of happily ever after. You feel like you’re part of something communal — almost spiritual. However, this production didn’t awake my senses or capture my imagination — rather it simply made me exhausted. Perhaps I could blame it on a weary Thursday afternoon, where the last thing I wanted was actors running around yelling their lines like they’d just had 10 cups of caffeinated hot chocolate.

Hyperactivity is not a substitute for heart.

But it was more than that. Director Nathan Allan (who also wrote the piece along with collaborators Chris Matthews and Jake Minton) has the actors constantly speaking over top of each other and racing through scenes, which muddied up the storytelling for me. This proved particularly problematic during the latter third of this 85-minute one-act, where a love story emerges out of seemingly nowhere and the tone of the story dramatically shifts without warning — and, more importantly, without having been emotionally earned.

In other words, it felt contrived — something I’d never expect from House.

I, apparently, got lost in the flurry of snow (which there’s a lot, and it’s indeed impressive), flying rigs and yelling, and just waited for the thing to blow over.

Filament Theatre’s The Snow Queen marks a series of new beginnings for this resourceful company. This utterly captivating production launches the debut of their new space in the eclectic Portage Park neighborhood (an area I’ve recently called home), and it introduces us to their new acting company. And from the looks of it, this group (which produced one of my favorite Chicago productions back in 2011) has set the foundation for a very promising future.

Yes, the space is still in development (though I find the unfinished, industrial look charming and refreshing), and the ensemble still needs some time to gel, but the play’s the thing, and this production strikes the right mix of earnestness, joy and sincerity with a just a touch of theatrical magic.

Much like Rose and the Rime, The Snow Queen follows a young couple who have been trapped in a winter wonderland by a queen (who’s essentially a witch with a crown). The boy (Christian Libonati) has been held captive by the Snow Queen (Lindsey Dorcus), while the girl (Mara Dale) follows her heart to save her best friend. Along the way, she meets a host of characters, including a band of trolls, a talking reindeer and a helpful raven.

As this is a Hans Christian Andersen adaptation, the story ends on a hopeful, heartwarming note with a clear moral lesson.

Under Allega Libonati’s resourceful and grounded direction, this production fully engaged my inner kid. Thoughtful use of puppets and masks (designed by master mask maker Jeff Semmerling, whose studio is just a few floors above Filament’s new space) add a dash of whimsy without sacrificing story. And at 60 minutes running time, the young audience’s attention span never wavered.

If I have to sum up the main difference between these two productions, it comes down to the core ingredient driving these two stories: snow. In The Snow Queen, the audience is invited to throw makeshift snow at the stage, whereas in Rose and the Rime, the snow is thrust upon us in hyperventilating waves. Sometimes a simple snowstorm is all that’s needed to warm the heart.

“Rose and the Rime” plays through March 9. More info here >

“The Snow Queen” plays one more weekend, through Feb. 9 at 4041 North Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. More info here >

Refreshed ‘Phantom’ Still Dazzles

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera holds a special place in my heart. Hal Prince’s original blockbuster production, which I saw no less than four times in Toronto back in the mid ’90s, was one of my first exposures to big, professional theatre, and I quickly became obsessed with the show.

Yes, Phantom has its flaws. The plot teeters into treacly melodrama, and some may argue ALW’s sweeping score feels overwrought. But really, arguing the merits of the material isn’t getting us anywhere — the show has been a sure-fire hit for more than a quarter century with no end in sight.

What drew me to this tour was that mega producer Cameron Mackintosh has stepped away from the original Prince staging and has built, from the ground up, a brand new production.

Mackintosh has recruited up-and-coming director Laurence Connor, who brought new life to the recent Les Misérables tour that’s been making the rounds and is coming to Broadway in March, to helm this new production. Connor has a knack for pushing aside the bombast and finding real human truths in the material, and that skill is displayed here.

Gone are the late, great Maria Björnson’s award-winning (and now iconic) scenic designs, which brought Prince’s minimalist-yet-magnificent staging to life. Paul Brown’s new scenic vision certainly leaves you feeling like Mackintosh has left no expense spared. The result is a somewhat cluttered yet visually arresting landscape featuring a giant rotating scenic element that produces a few jaw-dropping surprises. And, yes, the chandelier is still intact, and it still makes a dramatic plunge at the end of act one (spoiler!). (However, you might want to wear eye goggles during this moment — much to the surprise of those in my seating area, the chandelier shoots out soft plastic ‘glass shards’ that unfortunately went right into my eye. No damage done, but certainly jarring.) Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

Kokandy’s ‘Sweet Smell’ is a Success

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Brian Rooney revels in the powerplay while David Schlumpf looks on in Kokandy’s “Sweet Smell of Success”

Certain cast recordings never leave your playlist. I mean, that’s the case if you’re a MT geek. And of those few cast recordings, the OBC of Sweet Smell of Success has enjoyed a constant spot in my rotation since I happened on the haunting, jazzy score penned by the late Marvin Hamlisch a decade ago.

I’m not sure why the 2002 musical adaptation of the 1957 noir film didn’t get its due. On record it’s a masterpiece. “At the Fountain,” where eager press agent Sidney Falcone realizes he’s at the cusp of greatness, is probably one of the most compelling “I want” songs in the history of musical theatre. The truly haunting “I Cannot Hear the City” serves as both an accidental love song as well as a driving plea for connection. “Dirt” offers a catchy ear-worm of an ensemble number about the insatiable need to feed the masses with sensationalized fodder.

But the original Broadway production, which had its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago, was a financial and critical flop, eking out a little over 100 performances — despite the star power of John Lithgow as the hard-nosed gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker combined with the pedigree of Hamlisch.

One can only assume it’s because the story, about an up-and-coming press agent who upends his moral code to achieve fame and notoriety by befriending corrupt gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker, proved too dark for commercial audience appeal. After all, nearly everyone in the play ultimately gets what they want, even if doing so destroys them along the way. And the innocent bystanders — the central love story between Susan, Hunsecker’s sister, and a gifted jazz pianist — ends, well, less than ideally.

In other words, this ain’t Mamma Mia!

Kokandy’s small-but-mighty production at Theater Wit (now playing through February 2) also adds to the mystery for the show’s failure. Hamlisch’s score, with smokey, period-specific lyrics by Craig Carnelia, is well-presented by a first-rate cast, led by the outstanding David Schlumpf as driven Sidney and Brian Rooney as the uncompromising Hunsecker. Schlumpf, who has the rare ability to seamlessly shift from vulnerable to vindictive, possesses a remarkably powerful voice, knocking “At the Fountain” out of the compact Theater Wit venue. In fact, it’s such a golden moment, one wishes this served as the act one closer. Rooney might be slight in stature, but damn if he doesn’t make you quake in your shoes.

As Susan, J.J.’s kept sister, Victoria Blade strikes a melancholic figure with an underlying bite. As her hidden lover, Nathan Gardner brings boyish charm colored by a lilting tenor.

The omnipresent ensemble, choreographed by Steven Spanopoulos, slinks through the functional set by Zachary Gipson with brooding drive. Aaron Benham’s music direction fares best on the vocals, but needs a bit more attention on the cracker-jack band — particularly the brass. This is a show that shouldn’t be played hesitantly, and more than a few notes missed the mark. Director John D. Glover finds the heartbeat in a show that celebrates heartlessness.

Sweet Smell isn’t produced often, so take advantage of this opportunity to see Kokandy’s special brand of success before it’s yesterday’s news.

“Sweet Smell of Success” is playing at Theater Wit through February 2. More info here >

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