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 >

‘Ghost the Musical’ National Tour: Nothing But Smoke and Mirrors

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I’m a fan of Ghost the Musical. Or, well, I was. At some point early into the first act of this first national tour, I turned to my friend and said, “I’m so sorry.”

Something happened between when I saw the show in London nearly two years ago and this non-Equity tour, now playing through January 19 at the Oriental Theatre. Here’s what I wrote about the show then:

Yes, Ghost the Musical is based on the iconic 1990 blockbuster, and has every potential to be a disaster, but they’ve managed to rethink the movie for the stage, and, for the most part, it works. Yes, the plot is still rather trite and the clay pot scene does make an appearance (how could it not?), but the show has found its own theatrical language to tell the story — and it’s jaw-dropping.

Most of the kudos must go to the design team (which includes a lighting designer, a video and projection designer, a movement sequence coordinator and, for good measure, an illusionist) who’ve done wonders to make director Matthew Warchus’ highly technical vision come to life. I mean — it’s a marvel of a show to look at. I can’t recall a time when my mouth has sat agape for so long. I may have drooled on myself. Moving LED screens, onstage holograms, smoke that comes and goes on cue. Wow. It’s like being trapped in a third-dimensional world where virtual life and the afterlife are one in the same.

Part of my interest in visiting this tour is to see how they scaled down the massive design for easy load-in. For the most part, the basic visual concepts are still intact, but watered down. Gone is the complex LED screen system that envelopes and drives the action, and instead is a single unit in the cramped upstage. Holograms and illusions are still in place, but less expertly applied. Ashley Wallen and Liam Steel’s strikingly angular choreography, which demands unfaltering precision timed with video projections, feels sloppy. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

A Solid Cast Fails to Solve Remy Bumppo’s ‘An Inspector Calls’

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If there’s any mystery in Remy Bumppo’s An Inspector Calls, it’s how this play is considered a classic of the mid-20th century English theatre. J. B. Priestley’s drama is less an Agatha Christie parlor mystery and more a heavy (heavy!) handed morality play delivered with all the subtlety of a Hallmark Channel Christmas Special.

It’s 1912 and the upper class Birling family is celebrating the engagement of their only daughter, the high-strung Sheila (Isabel Ellison throwing herself into a thankless part) to Gerald Croft (Greg Matthew Anderson), a budding businessman who is as much an outsider as he is an unwitting player in this familial “whodunit.” The family patriarch (the perfectly blunderful Roderick Peeples) lectures the newly anointed couple about the values of self-made success and the virtues of protecting one’s interests while his withdrawn son (Luke Daigle) and strong-willed wife (Lia Mortensen, giving a delightfully crisp and cutting performance) look on.

And then, you guessed it: an inspector calls. As the mysterious and monomaniacal Inspector Goole, Nick Sandys radiates an unrelenting drive to get to the bottom of a recent murder. Well, a suicide, really — but one that any number of people may have had a hand in. The next two hours, plus intermission, include Inspector Goole grilling his suspects while they each, much to their surprise, burst forth with candid confessions that weave together a tapestry of bad behavior and societal wrongdoings.

However, that tapestry isn’t very interesting to look at when complete. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

Strawdog presents a straight-to-the-heart ‘Great Expectations’

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The cast of Strawdog’s “Great Expectations”

Oh, Pip. That poor orphaned protagonist from Charles Dickens’ classic 1861 novel Great Expectations. The one who moves from youthful innocence to morally questionable social climber to sobered adult while meeting a host of colorful characters along the way, including an aged jilted bride with a sadistic streak and her stunning but stone-hearted ward, a brutish convict, and a mysterious benefactor who offers Pip a second chance at life.

Strawdog’s streamlined production, smartly adapted by Gale Childs Daly, places the storytelling front-and-center, with a fearlessly adept ensemble of six morphing into the characters who inhabit Pip’s world.

As Pip, Mike Tepeli convincingly navigates the massive emotional arc required of this role. Much like the haunted Ebeneezer, Pip emerges from his brutal reality shaking an invigorated man with renewed perspective. Tepeli never loses the center of Pip’s good soul.

The supporting cast (comprising Amanda Drinkall, John Ferrick, Kyle A. Gibson, Megan Kohl and John Taflan — all stars in their own right) seamlessly shift personas with the flip of a dress or the donning of a hat. Subtle changes are all that are needed thanks to each actor’s commitment to creating well-defined characters. Director Jason W. Gerace keeps the action focused and fluid, using simple props in novel ways while leaning on John Kelly’s evocative lighting design to delineate tone and time.

If you’re looking for a chance to rediscover a beloved classic while revisiting some of Dickens’ simple but potent (and quite relevant) life lessons, check out Strawdog’s production.

“Great Expectations” plays through December 14 at Strawdog Theatre. More info here >

HuffPo Review: Timeline’s ‘The Normal Heart’ Proves a Sobering, Searing Reminder

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David Cromer, Patrick Andrews and Mary Beth Fisher in Timeline’s “The Normal Heart”

Watching David Cromer as gay rights activist Ned Weeks storm the stage, with his hands over his face in a perpetual mixture of anger, outrage and fear, is not unlike watching a staged panic attack. And rightly so: the world is crumbling around Ned (a stand-in for playwright and groundbreaking activist Larry Kramer) with no end in sight. He’s fighting a battle against an unknown enemy, while those who should be supporting him are either cowering behind their shields or have their heads in the sand.

The Normal Heart is a necessary play. When it premiered Off Broadway in 1985 — when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was just starting to get a glimmer of exposure following thousands of deaths — it served primarily as an emotional gut punch to open the eyes of those looking the other direction. Nearly 30 years later, this play, which is receiving a powerful production by Timeline Theatre at Stage 773, proves a sobering reminder of a crisis that happened not too long ago — and continues to this day.

It’s also a solidly structured play, clearly written from a place of urgency. What makes this play connect at such a deep emotional level is the love story Kramer has embedded into it. As Ned’s lover, Felix, Patrick Andrews brings a youthful naiveté that balances out Ned’s intensity. It also personalizes the issue, giving a face and a story to this nondiscriminatory disease. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

HuffPo Review: A Heartbreaking and Healing ‘Once’ at the Oriental Theatre

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You’d be hard pressed to think of anything more intimate than the act of making music. Through music, one exposes themselves in a way that transcends mere talking or movement. It’s the ultimate exposure of one’s soul. And such rawness makes for compelling storytelling.

Once, the 2012 Best Musical Tony winner based on the 2006 Irish film, celebrates music’s innate power. Chicago is lucky to host the stellar first national tour of this stunning new work for a short few weeks, and it’s a must-see.

Directed by John Tiffany with book by Enda Walsh and songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once offers an unlikely love story between two lost souls who find each other through music — and rediscover themselves along the way. And oh what music it is. Featuring an ensemble of equally talented actor-singer-musicians, this is the kind of show that must give casting directors nightmares. And the cast of this first-rate national tour possibly couldn’t be bettered. Read the full review here >

HuffPo Review: CST’s Sleepy ‘Cyrano’ Lacks Passion

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High hopes surrounded Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the 1897 play by Edmond Rostand translated for the stage by Anthony Burgess.

This is Harry Groener’s return to CST following his triumphant, award-winning turn in The Madness of George III in 2011. In that production, directed by Penny Metropulos, he created a character so grandly realized, it remains one of the most remarkable performances of this writer’s experience.

Groener has again teamed with Metropulos in an iconic role that has all the elements of another stirring stage creation. The witty and lyrical Cyrano offers a chance for an actor to revel in both word and swordplay. An outsider who longs to be loved, Cyrano knows (nose) it’ll take more than flowery speeches to win over the heart of his beloved Roxanne (who also happens to be his cousin — a point that makes for an admittedly uncomfortable overtone to Cyrano’s incessant wooing, even if this was common practice in the 19th century).

And the result? Well, as I looked around at the sleepy opening night audience near the 2.5 hour mark of this 3-plus hour play, I can safely say this production misses the mark by a more than a nose. Read full review here >

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