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

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