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!

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