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 >>

A Satiating ‘Sweeney’ at Porchlight

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Rebecca Finnegan and David Girolmo in Porchlight’s “Sweeney Todd”

Sweeney and I go way back. It was the first musical where I found myself blown away by not just the music, but also the plot. I still recall my 15 year-old self sitting in my grandparents living room giving the original Broadway cast album a spin on my trusty Sony Walkman. The album, gloriously produced by Thomas Z. Shepard, felt more like a radio play than any cast album I’d heard before. And when the final moments were revealed, I pulled off my orange foam headphones and yelled, “No way!”

The Sondheim masterwork about a revengeful barber righting the wrongs of his past by slitting the throats of the upper class has stuck with me since.

Porchlight’s more than fine production certainly scratched my Sweeney itch. It’s been at least a few years since I’ve seen a live production (The last being Drury Lane’s), and this period of late fall presents the ideal time for a close shave with the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Directed by Porchlight Artistic Director Micheal Weber, this production dazzles on many occasions, but at times seems to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s a small-scale production with big time ambitions, often pushing Stage 773’s black-box stage to the extremes — almost to the breaking point. Which isn’t a bad thing — I like to be delighted and surprised by bold thinking and innovative staging. However, sometimes less is indeed more, and having, say, Joanna (the pure-voiced Stephanie Stockstill) being rolled around atop a tall staircase during “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” with her blonde curls nearly entangled with the lighting rig may feel more like a distraction than a representation of her entrapment. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >>

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 >

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