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

Amanda Drinkall and Rufus Collins
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 >

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