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 >

Kokandy’s ‘Sweet Smell’ is a Success

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Brian Rooney revels in the powerplay while David Schlumpf looks on in Kokandy’s “Sweet Smell of Success”

Certain cast recordings never leave your playlist. I mean, that’s the case if you’re a MT geek. And of those few cast recordings, the OBC of Sweet Smell of Success has enjoyed a constant spot in my rotation since I happened on the haunting, jazzy score penned by the late Marvin Hamlisch a decade ago.

I’m not sure why the 2002 musical adaptation of the 1957 noir film didn’t get its due. On record it’s a masterpiece. “At the Fountain,” where eager press agent Sidney Falcone realizes he’s at the cusp of greatness, is probably one of the most compelling “I want” songs in the history of musical theatre. The truly haunting “I Cannot Hear the City” serves as both an accidental love song as well as a driving plea for connection. “Dirt” offers a catchy ear-worm of an ensemble number about the insatiable need to feed the masses with sensationalized fodder.

But the original Broadway production, which had its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago, was a financial and critical flop, eking out a little over 100 performances — despite the star power of John Lithgow as the hard-nosed gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker combined with the pedigree of Hamlisch.

One can only assume it’s because the story, about an up-and-coming press agent who upends his moral code to achieve fame and notoriety by befriending corrupt gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker, proved too dark for commercial audience appeal. After all, nearly everyone in the play ultimately gets what they want, even if doing so destroys them along the way. And the innocent bystanders — the central love story between Susan, Hunsecker’s sister, and a gifted jazz pianist — ends, well, less than ideally.

In other words, this ain’t Mamma Mia!

Kokandy’s small-but-mighty production at Theater Wit (now playing through February 2) also adds to the mystery for the show’s failure. Hamlisch’s score, with smokey, period-specific lyrics by Craig Carnelia, is well-presented by a first-rate cast, led by the outstanding David Schlumpf as driven Sidney and Brian Rooney as the uncompromising Hunsecker. Schlumpf, who has the rare ability to seamlessly shift from vulnerable to vindictive, possesses a remarkably powerful voice, knocking “At the Fountain” out of the compact Theater Wit venue. In fact, it’s such a golden moment, one wishes this served as the act one closer. Rooney might be slight in stature, but damn if he doesn’t make you quake in your shoes.

As Susan, J.J.’s kept sister, Victoria Blade strikes a melancholic figure with an underlying bite. As her hidden lover, Nathan Gardner brings boyish charm colored by a lilting tenor.

The omnipresent ensemble, choreographed by Steven Spanopoulos, slinks through the functional set by Zachary Gipson with brooding drive. Aaron Benham’s music direction fares best on the vocals, but needs a bit more attention on the cracker-jack band — particularly the brass. This is a show that shouldn’t be played hesitantly, and more than a few notes missed the mark. Director John D. Glover finds the heartbeat in a show that celebrates heartlessness.

Sweet Smell isn’t produced often, so take advantage of this opportunity to see Kokandy’s special brand of success before it’s yesterday’s news.

“Sweet Smell of Success” is playing at Theater Wit through February 2. More info here >

‘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 >

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