First Wives Club Musical Feels Like a First Draft

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

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

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

A Transcendent ‘Carousel’ at Lyric Opera

Carousel Rehearsal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 >

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