HuffPo Review: ‘Rock of Ages’ Turns Up the Volume at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse

It’s another summer in Chicago, so that means a visit from the touring production of the hit head-banger musical Rock of Ages. This crowd-pleasing show, which is now a major motion picture, kick started its national tour in Chicago in 2010. Then, last year, the non-Equity version of that tour played for a short stint at the Cadillac Palace. And now, that tour is back with a vengeance, rocking out for the summer in the much cozier Broadway Playhouse next to Chicago’s Water Tower Place. And this go ’round, it has finally found a home that fits like a leather, fingerless glove, complete with buckles and metal studs. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >

Huffington Post: ‘Being Shakespeare’ at Broadway Playhouse

Simon Callow’s one-man show, Being Shakespeare, took the U.K. by storm and is now making a short stop at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s World’s Stage Series.

The multi-talented Callow is a deeply compelling performer, who clearly revels in the Bard of Avon’s prose and poems. At various points Callow, who’s 62, sprints across the stage with youthful vigor reciting verse while recounting the formative points in Shakespeare’s life that made him into the world-famous playwright. In Jonathan Bate’s dutiful biographical play, we learn how Shakespeare gained foundational writing technique at the demanding Stratford grammar school and get insight into his somewhat unconventional relationship with his somewhat older wife, Anne Hathaway. Callow explains the possible inspirations behind characters such as Macbeth and Hamlet and that he invented the work “puking.” And so on.

The audience eats it up, but I was left a little cold. Read full review on The Huffington Post >

‘Working’ at Broadway Playhouse gets the job done, but still needs some work

It’s an art: Barbara Robertson belts one out for the working woman.

“Everyone should have something to point to
Someway to be tall in the crowd

Upon watching the newly re-worked musical revue Working, which opened last night at Broadway Playhouse, the above lyric made me think: in my career so far, is there something I will be able to look at and proudly say: I did that. That’s mine. A tangible relic of my doing.

I won’t answer that here, but it did make me think — long and hard.

The average American spends nearly 30 percent of their lives at work. That’s a hell of a lot of time to be doing anything — be it great or small. While some identify themselves by their career (“I’m a lawyer”), some view their jobs as a means to an end (“I stuff envelopes to pay the bills”). Either way, like it or not: what we do for a job informs who we are as a person.

Perhaps no one has done a better job capturing this than Studs Terkel, whose 1972 book “Working” documented candid interviews with men and woman around the country — mostly in Chicago — about their chosen professions. Working celebrates the regular people. Cleaning women, construction workers, hotel clerks, police men, waitresses, housewives, prostitutes, teachers, millworkers. Their stories, told by Terkel, are poignant and eye-opening.

So, in 1977, Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell and, later, Wicked), along with Nina Faso, adapted Terkel’s book into a musical. To represent the uniqueness of each story, the musical uses a wildly eclectic style, with various composers contributing songs to the 100-minute, intermissionless “working man’s musical.” Not unlike A Chorus Line for construction workers.

For this brand-new production, Schwartz, along with director Gordon Greenberg, went back to the drawing board to update the 34 year-old script to appeal to a modern context of layoffs, a faltering economy, millenials in the workforce and the information age. With this, two new songs have been added by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), adding an energetic fist bump to the evening.

(I should note that this is the first time I’ve seen this musical, so I’m not comparing this production to others).

That said, for this Working virgin, the result is an uneven, if entertaining, evening. It’s a social survey put to song. There’s really no compelling connecting narrative aside from the basic premise of workers telling their stories, and at times singing about them. It’s insightful, if a bit uninspired. But there are a lot of clever links between numbers — such as when the fearless E. Faye Butler transitions, quite literally before our eyes, from a simple housewife to a street-savvy prostitute.

In addition to Butler, Barbara Robertson, a favorite performer of mine, gets to showcase her goofy, endearing charm and scrappy singing voice. To me, Robertson epitomizes the working Chicago actress, so it’s grand to see her having such a ball portraying other dyed-in-the-wool professionals, such as an old-school school teacher who’s struggling to keep up with the changing times, a smarmy socialite and a bubbly waitress, among others.

Gene Weygandt gets the more subtle numbers in the evening, including a plaintive song about the bittersweet realities of retiring, and does well. Rounding out the cast of six, Michael Mahler, Juan Gabriel Ruiz and Emjoy Gavino are the relative newbies of the group, and they each hold their own — particularly Gavino, who provides a haunting performance of “Millworker” — a song penned by James Taylor that’s probably the best of the bunch.

Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has smartly put the actors’ dressing rooms onstage, providing transparency between the stagecraft and the story, helping underscore that acting is just as legitimate a profession as, say, firefighting. Though I wish Greenberg used this device consistently — sometimes the actors go offstage to transform professions, and sometimes they do it in their dressing rooms.

As the ads say, this show will appeal to anyone who’s worked a day in their lives. I agree: the music and overall purpose of the show is worthwhile and relevent. And it’s not every day you get to see such an amazing collection of Chicago talent do what it is they do best. However, the creators need to take a few more risks in the storytelling and find a better way to pull all the stories together so it doesn’t simply feel like a slapped-together revue. After all, I’m sure they want something worthwhile to point to when it’s all said and done.

CTA Index: 7.5 out of 10. (A collection of insightful stories and eclectic songs acted by some top-tier Chicago talent does not always make for the most cohesive and inspired show.)

“Working” plays through May 8 at Broadway Playhouse. More info here >

What I’m looking forward to in 2011 (so far, anyway)

It’s a relatively quiet period for Chicago theatre, with many shows either ending runs or getting ready to open. So, another list-y blog post!

As usual, there are a barrage of shows opening in the first few months of the new year. Where to start? In no particular order, here are a few things I’m particularly looking forward to in the near term (click on the play’s title for more info):

Violet: Bailiwick Chicago, which enjoyed a very successful resurrection last season, plans to stage this cult favorite musical, which features music by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change; Shrek) and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. I’ve heard a lot about this rarely-produced show over the years, including that musical master Stephen Sondheim has listed this show among his favorites. And if he recommends it, I guess it’s worth considering. From the show’s press materials:

Set in 1964 in the deep south during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, the story follows the growth and enlightenment of a bitter young woman accidentally scarred by her father. In hopes that a TV evangelist can cure her, she embarks on a journey by bus from her sleepy North Carolina town to Oklahoma. Along the way, she meets a young black soldier who teaches her about beauty, love, courage and what it means to be an outsider.

Les Miserables: Hello? It’s only the biggest mega-musical of the mid-’80s. And I can sing the score from beginning to end at will and without prompt. I’m sure whoever’s playing Marius can’t compete with my earth-shattering take of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” but I’ll try to give him the benefit of the doubt. From press materials:

Cameron Mackintosh presents a brand new 25th anniversary production of Boublil & Schonberg’s legendary musical, with glorious new staging and spectacular re-imagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. This new production has already been acclaimed by critics, fans and new audiences and is breaking box office records wherever it goes.

Heddatron: Robots and Ibsen? I’m so there! And Sideshow theatre, a group that I became familiar with last year thanks to a stunning production of Theories of the Sun, is sure to offer a compelling production as part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep series. From the show’s press materials:

A book falls from the sky and a depressed Michigan housewife is kidnapped by a clan of renegade robots, whisked away to the jungles of South America, and forced to perform the title role in a mechanical version of Hedda Gabbler. As a documentarian searches for the truth about the abduction and the woman’s family mounts a search party, Ibsen himself enters the picture to defend his well-made play. Sideshow is partnering with robotics experts across Chicago to present a cast of human actors and functioning robots in this bizarre and savagely funny Chicago premiere.

Odradek: I’ve yet to see a House Theatre production that’s blown me away with its fantastical theatricality (I missed The Sparrow, which everyone still raves about). However, this show — a world-premiere by Brett Neveu based on the Franz Kafka short story “The Cares of a Family Man” and this painting — sounds like it has big potential. And I can’t wait. From press materials:

Set in a small Iowa town, a boy struggles to come to terms with his parent’s divorce and his father’s new relationship. Late one night, after a session with his new doctor, the boy encounters Odradek, a dark, shifting form made of twine and rags who lives under the stairs. As the boy’s emotional health rapidly worsens, the father begins a romantic relationship with his child’s doctor. Seeking understanding, the boy enters an odd friendship with the monster.

Working: This “working man’s” musical boasts an impressive cast of Chicago actors (E. Faye Butler, Barbara Robertson and Gene Weygandt, among others), and an even more impressive list of composers who’ve contributed to the score (Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz and James Taylor). From press materials:

Working is a vital new musical based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Chicago’s own Studs Terkel. Newly adapted by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippen and Godspell), Working is the working man’s A Chorus Line. It is a musical exploration of people from all walks of life, with twenty-six songs by all-star composers. Working celebrates everyday people, fills you with hope and inspiration and is the perfect musical for anyone who has ever worked a day in their lives.

God of Carnage: While I highly disliked Yasmina Reza’s previous play, Art, many of my fancy New York City friends saw Carnage multiple times on Broadway last season, as the show cycled through its starry cast changes. And they raved about it each time. So, I’m intrigued. And with Mary Beth Fisher in the lead in the Goodman’s production, the potential is high. From press materials:

When Alan and Annette’s son hits Michael and Veronica’s son with a stick, the two couples meet to discuss the problem over appetizers. What starts as a civilized get-together quickly devolves into a scrappy, laugh-out-loud evening that The New Yorker calls “ninety minutes of sustained mayhem.”

Sex with Strangers: If the title isn’t enough to entice you, I don’t know what is. Maybe that Steppenwolf is presenting it? And the description is compelling:

Ethan is a hot young writer whose online journals of “sexcapades” are the buzz of the blogosphere. Olivia is an attractive 30-something whose own writing career is fizzling. They hook up, sex turns into dating and dating into something more complicated. A break-out hit at Steppenwolf’s 2009 First Look Repertory, Sex with Strangers explores how we invent our identity – online and off – and what happens when our private lives become public domain.

There’s a ton of other stuff I’m forgetting, but this is what’s on my mind at the moment. What shows are you looking forward to in the coming months?

‘Traces’ at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse: ordinary people doing extraordinary things

The French Canadian performance group 7 Fingers will jump through the hoops for you.

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That’s the best way to describe the heart-racing new show at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse.

These seven young performers — part of French Canadian performance group 7 Fingers (Les 7 doigts de la main) — flip; jump; play piano; skateboard; climb up poles with no legs and then freefall to the ground, headfirst, within inches of breaking a neck; and then sing a sweet song on guitar. It’s an entirely unique blend of jaw-dropping team-based stunts, mixed-media performance art, and a heaping dose of heart.

Yet even though they’re doing these amazing things, these performers are completely accessible — not some ethereal forces twirling around in front of you. You feel as though you could go out and have a drink with them. Each one has a distinct and charming personality that is highlighted in transitional vignettes. (Though, I do wish these vignettes did a more effective job linking the routines together — at times the overall thing lacked cohesion.)

Not only are they interesting people and supremely talented, they’re not bad to look at, either. I was particularly smitten by Mason Ames — a 6’3”, 228 lb member of the team. While a (relative) giant on the stage, his size didn’t deter him from jumping through tiny wooden hoops with the same level of dexterity and grace as his more spritely cohorts. (Meanwhile, Katy at The Fourth Walsh liked Florian Zumkehr. It’s the long hair that did her in.)

You should really try to catch this show in the cozy Broadway Playhouse, which happens to be the launching pad for their North American tour. I’m actually surprised Broadway in Chicago would book them in this 550-seat venue — if there’s any show that requires space to move around, it’s this one. As spectacular as this intermissionless 90-minute show is, you feel as though they need a few more feet of space to really go full-throttle.

“Traces” plays through Dec. 19 at the Broadway Playhouse, next to Water Tower Place in the loop. More info here >

Sutton Foster ‘blesses’ Chicago’s new Broadway Playhouse

Sutton Foster at the Broadway Playhouse.

The radiant, gangly, Tony-winning Broadway star Sutton Foster has opened Chicago’s new Broadway Playhouse with style and heart.

Some would argue that Ms. Foster is the last true Broadway star. No other actor of her generation has originated so many lead roles in new musicals on Broadway who isn’t a) a movie star, b) a TV star, c) an American Idol, d) a powerful producer’s daughter. She’s just Sutton Foster, of the bright, big voice and easy-going personality who broke out from the chorus nine years ago because someone gave her the chance to take over the lead in the hit musical Thoroughly Modern Milly. Two of those star makers were producers Mike Isaacson and Kristin Caskey, who were on hand last night to introduce Ms. Foster to the buzzing audience as she officially “blessed” the Broadway Playhouse.

About that new space. It seems like only yesterday that it opened its doors as Drury Lane Water Tower — the less popular step sister of Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace. Now, purchased by Broadway in Chicago, the space has gotten a sleek, urban makeover. Gone are the red carpets, cream walls and gold chandeliers. In their place are black, chrome, neon and a splashes of red, with a striking new lobby entrance. The place is contemporary to a fault. While I’m not sure the design pendulum needed to swing so far away from the tacky-glam Drury Lane aesthetic (the neon light tubes are a bit overkill), it’s an impressive space. I can’t wait to see how Broadway in Chicago will utilize it.

Broadway Playhouse: before (left) and after (right) transformation

And now to Ms. Foster. With her unassuming demeanor, unmade face and straight brown hair, you immediately feel at ease when she’s on the stage — like she’s that dorky, talented friend who you always knew would make it big. So it’s perfect she should be the first person to test out the space. She just radiates good vibes.

In her 1.5 hour, one act set, she sings the hits from her already impressive stage career along with folksy, simple tunes from her album, “Wish.” I particularly enjoyed her wistful take on Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle.” The woman can weave a spell.

Typical patter between songs goes something like this: “Guess what?” (Audience says, “What?”) “I was a question on Jeopardy. I know! I didn’t see it, but my friend told me about it. They say you’ve made it big when you’re a question on Jeopardy! But…no one knew the answer…”

Cute, right?

With a voice like hers, which is full of bright, Broadway pizzaz, you’re waiting for her to step away from the introspective, plaintive songs and, well, belt! Thankfully, she devotes a small (too small) section of the show to “really high belt songs.” She literally puts the titles of five big belting songs in a cup — “The Story Goes On” from Baby, “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife, “Defying Gravity” from, well you know, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl, and “And I’m Telling You” from Dreamgirls — and asks an audience member to pull out a title for her to sing. I wanted “And I’m Telling You,” but we got “Meadowlark,” which she started softly and built up to the requisite and promised belt.

And wait ’till you see what she does with “Show off,” the number from another Tony-nominated role of hers. I think at that point the audience fell in love. Two standing ovations later and a performance of the number that made her a star (“Gimme Gimme“) sent the audience home delighted and charmed.

Following Ms. Foster, who plays through Sunday (more info here), is Traces, a French-Canadian acrobatic team that will leap in Oct. 26 – Dec. 19, followed by a revised version of Working, (Feb. 15-May 8, 2011), the musical based on Studs Terkel’s book that will star Chicago favorites E. Faye Butler, Barbara Robertson and Gene Weygandt (I can’t WAIT for this one).


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