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 >

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 >

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