‘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 >

A solid, sobering ‘Trip to Bountiful’ at Raven

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Millicent Hurley Spencer and Mike Boone in Raven Theatre’s “The Trip to Bountiful”

One of the things I’ll never understand about society is how we treat those who are in advanced phases of life. The senior citizens. The elderly. The infirm.

Especially considering, if we’re lucky enough, we’ll all be in that same boat.

Instead, we shuttle our elders into sterile nursing homes and remove any stimulus that might pose a fall risk or heart attack. Or, worse yet (and perhaps more common), we ignore them — as if doing so helps mitigate the fear of the inevitable. After all, we all can’t possibly look like Jane Fonda at the 2013 Emmys when we turn 75.

Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful is a beautiful and plain-spoken play that makes us think long and hard about the choices we make when it comes time for us to transition into caretaker. It’s also a sobering reminder of perhaps the biggest fear one can have when facing the silver years: becoming a bothersome obligation.

We’re introduced to Mrs. Carrie Watts, an elderly woman looking to escape the stifling confines of her son’s Houston apartment to visit her rural Texas hometown one final time. As Mrs. Watts in Raven’s dutiful — and, at times, deeply moving — production, we have Millicent Hurley Spencer, an actress with an expressive face and eyes that sparkle with the mischief of exploration and the hunger for something more. While Spencer gives a smart and fiercely committed performance, she comes across as a sturdy woman who wouldn’t have any problem firing up a tractor and plowing the farm. In fact, I was half-expecting Spencer to clock her resentful daughter-in-law (a delightfully bratty Eleanor Katz giving a performance not unlike Blanche Devereaux on a very bad day) rather than biting her tongue and rocking in her chair.

However, while it might be difficult to initially accept Spencer as a women not capable of forging her own fate, due to the actress’s commitment to character, I grew to overlook Spencer’s solid stature and realize that this is a woman who’s broken — and the only way to mend her fractured spirit is this trip to Bountiful. Along the way, Mrs. Watts meets a series of kind souls, including a polite young wife (tenderly played by Jen Short) traveling to live with her parents after her husband has been shipped off to war, and a compassionate Sheriff (Larry Carani).

For those unfamiliar with this play (and Raven Theatre’s production, directed by Joann Montemurro, is a very fine introduction) I won’t give anything away, except to say that this is one of those tales that’s more about the journey than the destination. And what a beautifully bountiful trip it is, indeed.

“The Trip to Bountiful” plays through November 17 at Raven Theatre. More info here >

HuffPo Review: High-energy Evita needs a touch of star quality

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Evita is a touchstone in the modern musical theater canon. When the sung-through rock opera debuted in the late ’70s, it broke many rules. A musical about a polarizing political icon featuring a score (by a young and ambitious Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborator Tim Rice) that required the lead actress to rock belt for 2.5 hours? Audiences had never seen or heard anything like it. Critics were divided, but it found an audience and ran for years, and was made into a (tepid) feature film starring none other than Madonna.

And 30-plus years later, the show holds up remarkably well. Especially in a promising all-new production launching its national tour at the Oriental Theatre.

Sure, the story, which follows the iconic Argentinian political icon’s rapid ascent to power before meeting her early demise due to cancer stage 33, is a rather one-note affair. Five minutes into the second act, it’s a slow and anticlimactic descent into an untimely conclusion. But the score and, if done right, the power of the performances and the staging make up for any shortcomings in storytelling.

This first national tour mostly recreates the recent revival, which received strong critical notices in London, where it premiered, but proved a financial failure when it transferred to Broadway, despite the casting of Ricky Martin (who isn’t in this tour). This production consciously breaks free from the original Hal Prince staging that so many subsequent productions followed — including a knockout production I saw in Germany back in 2001 (Evita sung in German is intense). Where Prince’s production was essentially staged in a minimalist black box with harsh lighting and steel frames, this revival, directed by Michael Grandage and choreographed by Rob Ashford, chooses sunnier tones, as if to suggest Buenos Aires’ vibrant Latin flavor and heat, which drew little Eva Duarte to the big city in the first place. Read full review on The Huffington Post >

Porchlight’s ‘Double Trouble’ Creaks with Old-School Charm

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Alexander and Adrian Aguilar harmonize in Porchlight’s “Double Trouble”

Donald and Gene. Bing and Danny. Adrian and Alexander.

What do these three pairs have in common? Why, they’re vintage sweater vest-sportin’, Brilliantine in the hair-wearnin’, singin’ and dancin’ duos who charm with their smooth moves and crooning tunes. They all have a song at the ready to express their new-found love, and it often involves a soft shoe shuffle and sometimes a broom or an umbrella dancing partner.

While Donald (O’Connor), Gene (Kelly), Bing (Crosby) and Danny (Kaye) are household names and beloved musical comedy pairs, Adrienne and Alexander aren’t familiar outside of Chicago’s tight-knit theatre community. At least, not yet.

Yes, Double Trouble is a charming and creaky (sometimes noisily so) two-hander musical comedy that celebrates sibling revelry. A labor of love by brother duo Bob and Jim Walton, Porchlight’s snappy production features winning performances from Adrian and Alexander Aguilar — each accomplished musical actors who steadily work across the city. Read the full review on HuffPo >

Mercury Theater finds the emotional core in sprawling ‘The Color Purple’

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Perhaps you heard the cheers, sobs and stamping feet coming from Southport street? Well, that was the sound of the opening night audience at Mercury Theater’s The Color Purple, a searing and emotionally resonant production directed by L. Walter Stearns.

This is my first encounter with the 2005 musical adaptation of the beloved Alice Walker novel — I missed the multiple touring productions that stopped in Chicago over the last few years. I’d heard from various sources that that production, directed by Chicago’s Gary Griffin, was a visual spectacle but bloated in its storytelling.

Watching Mercury Theater’s intimate yet epic staging, I certainly noticed sections and scenes that could easily be trimmed to hone in on the core story concerning the emotional journey of a young, timid African American girl named Celie, who’s experienced more in her first 14 years than many of us do in an entire lifetime. (In fact, acclaimed director John Doyle has done just that by cutting 30 minutes from the original script and delivering a critically praised London production playing at the renowned Menier Chocolate Factory.)

However, Mercury’s cast is so fiercely committed to the material, you easily see through the excess. As Celie (the role made famous by Whoopi Goldberg in the 1985 film — or, one could argue, the role that made Whoopi famous), Trisha Jeffrey brings great vulnerability and grit, as well as a piercing cry of a singing voice. Adrienne Walker makes for a sassy yet sincere Shug Avery, who helps Celie come out of her shell in more ways than one. As the proud and defiant Sofia, Celie’s sister-in-law, Jasondra Johnson has the powerhouse voice and the presence that makes you sit up and take notice. But the real stars here are the church lady greek chorus (Sydney Charles, Carrie Louise Abernathy and Brittany L. Bradshaw) who serve up tight vocal harmony (deft musical direction by Eugene Dizon) and attitude for days.

After Mercury’s fun but ultimately ho-hum Barnum, I was mighty impressed by this production, which seemed to pull out all the stops. Get yourself to Mercury Theater and be prepared to be blown away both emotionally and musically.

“The Color Purple” plays through October 27 at Mercury Theater. More info here >

HuffPo Review: Nora Dunn presents a funny, if fragmented, one woman show

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Nora Dunn knows how to tell a story. Particularly when she’s telling it from the perspective of a character. From an old-school Hollywood agent to a precocious girl who attends a school for the creatively gifted, Dunn uses these characterizations as a conduit to tell her side of the showbiz story. The side where a shy, “hopelessly Midwestern” girl, such as herself, finds herself ill-equipped for the fast-paced “let’s have lunch” Hollywood lifestyle.

It’s when she switches back to her persona, Nora Dunn, that the show falters in its footing. That’s not to say Dunn, best known for her late ’80s-early ’90s stint on SNL, isn’t an engaging personality — she’s honest, grounded, accessible and immensely likable. No, the problem is she seems least comfortable as herself. Which is oddly fitting, given that her show explores the challenge of being a performer vs. being a personality. And personalities are what make connections and build careers. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

Introducing ‘Mental Cocktail’

I’ve recently started a new blog: Mental Cocktail.

Where Chicago Theatre Addict will still be all about theatre, Mental Cocktail will be devoted to another big passion: writing. It’s personal, it’s real, it’s a bit raw and somewhat random. Most importantly, it’s an outlet where I can scratch a deep creative itch.

Thanks, as always, for reading. See you in the theatre!

HuffPo Review: It’s All About the Dance in ‘Flashdance – The Musical’

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Alex just wants to dance! When asked to describe how she feels about dance, she chooses one word: passionate. She “is the music.” She looks good in a skimpy two-piece dance suit and legwarmers.

Trouble is, she’s a steel mill welder who moonlights as an exotic dancer at the neighborhood bar and grill. How can anyone take her passion seriously?

Don’t worry — she finds her inner flashdance and all is right with the world.

Look. Flashdance – The Musical is not great theatre. It’s not even very good. However, it is entertaining. Particularly due to the fact that it’s a show about following one’s passion by overcoming the odds. We can latch on to Alex’s story.

Also, it’s a love story. Read the full review at The  Huffington Post >

HuffPo Review: Haven Theatre Presents a Glam, if Glum, ‘Hedwig’

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a show that either resonates deeply, or you walk away slightly disoriented. For me, Hedwig is one of the best rock musicals written in the last 45 years, ranking right up there with RentJesus Christ Superstar and Hair. Conceived by the brilliant John Cameron Mitchell (who played Hedwig in its famed Off-Broadway run as well as the beloved underground film), it’s a fascinating character study that keep you on edge, while Stephen Trask’s unexpectedly tender and haunting rock ballads make you lean forward.

However, the show demands a strong directorial vision to help it transform from performance art rock concert to a deeply personal rock confessional. As its inaugural production, Haven Theatre’s Hedwig comes mighty close to capturing the shattered spirit of this overlooked glam rocker. This is mainly due to fearless performances from Ryan Lanning as Hedwig (who manages to capture Hedwig’s poise and fragility, as well as her dark insecurities and rage – with a compelling rock tenor to boot) and Lauren Paris as a quietly brooding Yitzhak. Read the full review on HuffPo > 

‘The Jungle Book’ is a feast for the eyes and ears, but leaves the heart empty

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Walt Disney’s “The Jungle Book” is one of those movies I’m sure I’ve seen, but I don’t recall much from it – aside from the jaunty tune “The Bear Necessities.”

While the Goodman’s new and wildly inventive adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories is a wholly original creation by mastermind director Mary Zimmerman, it freely lifts tunes from the well-known 1967 animated film.

And smartly, Zimmerman has again collaborated with music director Doug Peck (whom she worked with, to great success, on Candide a few seasons ago). Never one to skirt a challenge, Peck has found a remarkable way to combine the jazzy, Dixieland sounds inherent in the Sherman brothers’ score with the story’s Indian roots. And the result is downright magical, with the pit musicians, done up in traditional Indian folk outfits, marching onstage playing anything from a sitar and tablas to trombone and saxophone.

But why am I focusing on the music in a show featuring such eye-popping costumes (by Mara Blumenfeld) and dizzying choreography (by Christopher Gattelli)?

To me, the sound of this show is what captured my imagination. It’s such an original sensation, it draws you into another world. It’s the heart and soul of this production.

True: the show is a sensation for the eyes and ears. But the one area it’s lacking, and shockingly so given the talent involved, is heart. Zimmerman’s script merrily bounces along as we follow the young Mowgli (played by the joyous Akash Chopra at my performance) from episode to episode. Characters, including the beloved Baloo (played with great charm by Kevin Carolan) and the overzealous King Louie (a show-stopping André De Shields) fade in and out of his life with little impact. The fiercely devoted Bagheera (Usman Ally) struggles with taking Mowgli back to the people pack, but really it seems more a setup for these two to meet all the eccentric jungle critters along the way.

Following a particularly uneventful confrontation with Shere Khan (the perfectly cast and woefully underutilized Larry Yando), Mowgli’s safely back home. We enjoyed — and at times, marveled at — the journey, but what have we learned?

I will say: audiences seem to love this show. Not since their annual production of A Christmas Carol have I seen so many young theatregoers at the Goodman, which is fabulous.

“The Jungle Book” plays through August 18 at The Goodman Theatre. More info here >

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