Street Tempo’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is filled with killer surprises

Erin Creighton and John Sessler in Street Tempo Theatre’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” Photo credit: Linda Gartz

You think you’ve seen Little Shop, right? You’ve probably even been involved in a production or two at some point. I know I have — I was the left arm of the giant plant puppet in Alpena High School’s 1995 production. Perhaps you’re familiar with my work?

However, if you are able to catch Street Tempo Theatre’s wildly inventive production of this beloved thriller musical, you’re in for some killer surprises. Co-directors Kory Danielson (who also serves as the show’s music director) and Brian Posen have re-imagined this show as a dark, nearly Rocky Horror-esque adult production filled with wit, dark satire and off-color humanity.

I don’t want to give too much away here, as part of the delight of this production is in the ways they’ve rethought some key pieces, including that mean green mother from outer space, Audry II.

Ok, I’ll just say it: the plant is played by a woman and there isn’t a single puppet to be found onstage. Some Little Shop purists might be rolling their eyes right now, and sure, it can be considered a cop-out to go this route, but the intense Candace Edwards (Audry II) climbs up to the challenge (even quite literally in this production as she scales the back wall trellis to simulate her growth). However, because the score was written for a big baritone/bass, many of the lyrics in “Feed Me” were lost, due to a combination of vocal projection, sound design and a rocking, if overpowering band. And, yes, some of the comedy is sacrificed when Seymour is negotiating with a flesh-and-blood actress dressed up like Poison Ivy from Batman vs. a strangely cute fabric puppet.

So, yeah, that’s one big change. But it’s a choice, and I went with it.

In addition to the plant being female, the menacing lead-in narration that opens the show is provided by none other than Hollis Resnik (who originated the role of Audry in the Chicago premiere of Little Shop at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse back in 1986), which establishes that this is very much a girl power production. Women will overrule the world one day, alien plant form or otherwise. But we already knew this, right?

As the central ill-fated love story, we are offered a heartbreaking Seymour and Audry in John Sessler and Erin Creighton. Both are well-paired, and sound great together in their big duet, “Suddenly Seymour.” Creighton, though, is difficult to understand at points — her excessively timid, tender characterization could use a little more articulation (she tends to swallow the ends of phrases and words). But, still, a touching performance. Patrick Cannon and Scott Olson offer dark comedic relief as the sadistic motorcycle-riding dentist and the weary flower shop owner, respectively.

But the real stars of this show (as is usually the case in Little Shop) are the three urchins (Krystal Metcalfe, Will Hoyer and Sharriese Hamilton). Here, they’ve been upgraded from truant schoolgirls to sassy prostitutes in black bustiers (and, hey, one of them’s a dude in drag). They sound spectacular together and keep the show hurling forward with big attitude.

Sure, I could go on outlining what I did and didn’t like in this production (particularly, the dancing ensemble, which was one element too many), but I just suggest you check it out for yourself. This is unlike any production of Little Shop you’ve probably ever seen and you’re sure to walk away with some sort of strong opinion.

“Little Shop of Horrors” plays through May 13 at Stage 773. More info here >

Eight things I learned watching ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ 25th anniversary concert

Can you believe it? Phantom is a quarter of a century old. It’s the longest running show on Broadway, has generated roughly 4,678,980 katillion dollars, and your beer guzzling brother-in-law can probably hum out a few bars of “Music of the Night.” Or not. But still.

It’s a phenomenon. A phantomnomenom. Nom nom nom.

Secrets! I adore Phantom. Yes, the music is repetitive and the characters are pretty one-dimensional, but the whole package is delivered so well (thanks to director Hal Prince and designer Maria Bjornson), who cares.

I saw it three times in Toronto during my formative theatre queen years. For Christine, I had Rebecca Caine, Melissa Dye and some other woman. For their Phantoms, we had Colm Wilkinson (the *original* Jean ValJean) and Peter Karrie (who’s essentially Colm Wilkinson) twice.

It’s been 18 years since I’ve seen the show, and I was thisclose to catching it when I was in London in January. But I felt like doing so would somehow be lame, so I opted for Ghost: The Musical. Yup.

Anyway, the lavishly produced 25th anniversary concert staging at Royal Albert Hall recently aired on PBS, and I forced my partner to watch the thing with me. Here are some discoveries after having nearly two decades between viewings of this megamusical.

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Porchlight’s admirable ‘A Catered Affair’ is a study in subtlety

Jerry O’Boyle, Craig Spidle and Rebecca Finnegan in Porchlight’s “A Catered Affair.” Photo credit: Brandon Dahlquist

In its essence, Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino’s A Catered Affair is a simple, slice-of-life family drama that happens to be accompanied by a delicate score. So it doesn’t surprise me that it didn’t find success when the show opened on Broadway in 2008 — subtlety is a hard sell when it comes to Broadway musicals. Especially when the musical concerns real, everyday problems such as finances, recent loss and parental guilt.

However, in Chicago’s theatre scene we embrace such things — especially when they’re ensemble driven. And Porchlight’s thoughtful production makes a strong case for this show to get another look.

Based on the 1956 MGM film of the same name, the musical peers into the life of the Hurleys, a working class family who recently lost a son in the war. Jane (the perfectly cast Kelly Davis Wilson) announces to her family that she’s getting married in the coming week and wants a simple, courthouse ceremony — immediate family only. Her mother Aggie (Rebecca Finnegan, doing her best work to date) and father Tom (Craig Spidle), while surprised, comply with Jane’s request.

That is, until the guilt sets in and Aggie begins to feel she owes her daughter a special day, regardless of if they can afford it (and if it nearly tears the family apart in planning such an elaborate catered affair).

Despite the melancholic tone of the piece, Director Nick Bowling brings a tender, hopeful touch, making it easy to connect with this struggling family. Yet there are two big problems with Porchlight’s otherwise fine production: first, the venue is an acoustic nightmare for a such a subtle show (the gorgeous, onstage string quartet overpowers the vocals on many occasions, despite the actors being unevenly miked). Second, Brian Sidney Bembridge’s stage design, though lovely to look at, places many of the key scenes on an awkwardly lit platform, located at the far back of the house and high above the audience, removing us from the intimacy of the moment.

And then there’s Bucchino’s light (some might say slight), lilting score. I can’t say I loved it, but I appreciated it for its simplicity. There are many lovely moments (mostly reserved for Aggie, which are exquisitely delivered by Finnegan), and there are some, well, missed opportunities (Tom’s big number where he confronts his wounded wife doesn’t have the necessary impact). Throughout, Doug Peck’s music direction is first-rate.

“A Catered Affair” plays through April 1 at Stage 773. More info here >

Hollywood heads ‘Into the Woods.’ Again.

The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that director Rob Marshall is reteaming with Disney for a film adaptation of Into the Woods, the classic Broadway musical written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that explores what happens after “happily ever after.”

And the twittersphere has been blowing up with casting ideas. After all, for my generation, ITW is one of those beloved shows that we either grew up with or performed in high school, or both.

Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it. Hasn’t ITW been in the Hollywood potboiler before? Like in the late ’90s or thereabouts? Actually, yes: I just found my notes from when Sondheim spoke at the Harris theatre in 2010: “[Sondheim] revealed that a movie version of Into the Woods was in development many years ago, combining puppets by Jim Henson with live actors.”

(More info about this first movie version is covered in a recent article.)

Yup, I recall when this news broke and the internetz were abuzz with rumor and casting ideas. (And I still think the Muppet idea is rock solid.) Yet, like many other musical movie projects, it was abandoned.

This Hollywood Reporter announcement seems all too familiar.

But maybe this time, with Disney money behind it, Marshall’s ITW film will actually become a reality? However, I’m not sure if he’s the best director for this project (I’d be interested to see what someone like Tim Burton could do with the material — or, again, maybe not), and Lapine did some silly things with the book when he tweaked it for the 2002 Broadway revival, so I’m not sure if he’s the right guy to adapt his own material.

At any rate, let’s just skip to my Hollywood casting conjecture (which is a bit tongue-in-cheek as it reflects my disdain for Hollywood mucking up musicals):

Baker: Paul Giamatti (or Depp)
Baker’s Wife: Kristen Wiig
Witch: Catherine Zeta-Jones (or, you know, Gaga)
Cinderella: Taylor Swift
Little Red: Some newname
Jack: Bieber
Milky White: A Kardashian (here’s the dream casting)
Cinderella’s Prince: Taylor Lautner
Rapunzel’s Prince: Who really cares?
Cinderella’s Stepmother: Miss Piggy
Stepsisters: Olsen twins

What’s your dream casting?

Guest review: National tour of ‘Memphis’

Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell star in the national tour of “Memphis.” Photo credit: Paul Kolnik.

Due to the holiday weekend, I sadly couldn’t make press opening of the national tour of Memphis, so I asked a guest reviewer to cover the show on my behalf. Like me, this person is a musical fanatic, so I trust his opinions on such things.

Review by Christopher Richard

Well Hockadoo! Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical from David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, finally arrived in Chicago last night in all its roof-raising, toe-tapping, crowd-pleasing glory. For those who keep track of such things, this is a full union tour featuring cast members direct from Broadway and a physical production that is not any noticeably less detailed than the one that’s been packing audiences in on Broadway for the past two years. For a scant two weeks, Chicago is getting the real deal.

Memphis, set in the title town during the 1950s, covers the efforts of local white DJ Huey Calhoun to bring the R&B “race records” he loves so much to a broader audience “right in the center of your radio dial.” Along the way, he falls in love with Felicia, an African-American singer he meets out on Memphis’ legendary Beale Street, and promises to get her on the radio. The plot is loosely based on the true story of Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips.

Let’s get a few things out of the way: the plot doesn’t cover any territory that we haven’t seen before, and subtlety is not a word in director Christopher Ashley’s vocabulary for this production. The otherwise talented ensemble members often over-play their featured moments, and the dialogue has a melodramatic tendency to over-state the obvious.

Still, the show has a big, beating heart right when it needs it most, with an infectious score and lively staging that propels the show along with the high-octane energy of a rock concert. The music doesn’t always advance the plot in typical musical theatre fashion, but the vocal pyrotechnics and athletic choreography (from Sergio Trujillo) deliver one show-stopping number after another. And in a show touting the feel-good effects of soul music, isn’t that what counts?

As Huey and Felicia, Bryan Fenkart and Felicia Boswell have graduated from covering (understudying) their respective roles on Broadway. Both of them give extraordinarily loveable performances that have the audience rooting for them right from the get-go. Fenkart has Huey’s “aw, shucks” Southern charm down to a T, and Boswell astoundingly belts her face off about once every five minutes. These two performers are reason enough to catch this show — it’s not often Chicago audiences get to see musical theatre performers really let loose like this.

They’re supported by an equally talented trio of supporting leads: Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse in Drury Lane’s Ragtime) as Felicia’s brother, Delray; Julie Johnson as Huey’s mother and Will Mann as singer Bobby. All three are Broadway performers and vocal power-houses who bring their A-game on the road.

Fun-fact for musical theatre enthusiasts: William Parry, who originated roles in three Sondheim musicals (Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins, and Passion) appears in the non-singing role of Mr. Simmons, the radio station owner.

The finale had the crowd on its feet at Tuesday’s opening, and this reviewer was right there along with them. Don’t worry about thinking too much, and head on down to the Cadillac Palace for some good old-fashioned rock and roll!

“Memphis” plays through Dec. 4 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Tickets and more info here >

NYC diary: ‘Follies’ on Broadway

Terri White (center) leads the cast of “Follies” in “Who’s That Woman?” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

From the moment you enter the cavernous Marquis Theatre, the stage is set. Grey drop cloths envelope the interior. Ghostly wind and nail hammering echo through the auditorium, and if you listen closely, you can make out the soft shuffle of tap shoes rehearsing steps. An eroding proscenium frames a gutted stage.

Sounds evocatively depressing? Well, what do you expect? This is Follies, that beloved Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical about farewells, regrets, and facing the ghosts of pains past while furiously, if fruitlessly, tapping your troubles away.

As I’m sure you’re all aware, Follies is about the end of an era: a group of former follies girls have gathered for one final farewell before their theatre is turned into – what else – a parking lot. And goodbyes are hard — especially for Sally (Bernadette Peters) and Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) — girlhood friends who met in the follies, but early choices have turned them into incredibly wounded adults. The eternally girlish Sally has always loved the dashing Ben (Ron Raines), but reluctantly married the agreeable and philandering Buddy (Danny Burstein). And Ben’s quite unhappily married to the emotionally brittle Phyllis. The couples have quietly suffered in their loveless marriages for decades, but this reunion boils all those regrets to the surface.

On one hand, Follies is a tough show because it’s hard to root for these people. They treat each other badly and wallow in self-pity while blaming others for problems that, really, are their own damn faults. I mean, who doesn’t want to take Sally by the shoulders and shake her into reality? Especially as played by Peters, who takes Sally’s emotional instability beyond the beyond. (Seriously: after Peters’ over-the-top and oddly sung “Losing My Mind,” I thought she might have taken the title of the song literally and a straitjacket was in order.)

But then there’s the part of Follies that’s makes it such an enigma: these ugly truths are thrillingly counterbalanced by one of Sondheim’s most sumptuous and accessible scores, with many of the best moments handled by the other follies girls who, for one last time, relive their heyday in song and dance.

Take for example Elaine Paige, a petite powerhouse of a performer, who hurls “I’m Still Here” well into the back row. It’s a triumphant performance, full of old-school showbiz – as is Terri White’s “Who’s That Woman,” even if the choreography, while energetically executed by the middle-aged follies girls, is somewhat uninspired. (The ghost follies girls, which should add a final chilling layer to the showstopper, seem an afterthought). I also enjoyed how Jane Houdyshel thoughtfully underplayed the well-known “Broadway Baby” while still making every moment count. Also, I dare you not to tear up at Rosalind Elias’s “One More Kiss.” At 82, the famous mezzo-soprano’s voice is still a marvel.

Like a star that burns the brightest just before it flares out, these moments of fleeting beauty and last call powerhousing are at once heart-pumping and heartbreaking.

But back to Sally and Phyllis. Sally’s living in a dream world with Ben while Buddy watches from the sidelines, and Phyllis desperately hits on a catering boy before letting her rage flare up at Ben in one of musical theater’s best F-U numbers ever, “Could I Leave You?” which Maxwell nails.

Things take a meta turn in the second act (yes, there’s an intermission in this production) when their marital crises become a follies production unto themselves with the eye-popping “Loveland” sequence. I wasn’t a fan of Bernadette’s overworked “Losing My Mind,” and the otherwise fabulous Jan Maxwell has arms and legs for days, but the gal just can’t dance. She poses well, though. Burstein’s “Buddy’s Blues” makes the strongest impact and Raines breaks down effectively, leading to a truly heartbreaking conclusion as Peters faces the sobering reality that it’s time to go home.

I’m elated I saw this limited run production (did I mention the orchestra? It’s gorgeous, and the sound design is flaw. less.) and can’t wait to see how it compares to what Chicago Shakespeare has in store (seeing it Wednesday).

“Follies” plays through January 22, 2012 at the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, New York, NY. More info here>

Get the Scotchgard: Circle Theatre’s side-splitting ‘Urinetown’ may challenge your bladder muscles

The cast of Circle Theatre’s “Urinetown.” (photo credit: Bob Knuth)

Have you ever had to pee so badly you could nearly taste it? I remember one time I was at an Ann Hampton Callaway concert at Mayne Stage up in Rogers Park. I drank a few beers at dinner before the show, and had one during the show, and midway through her set, I knew I was headed for trouble. You see, we sat in the front rows, with tables and chairs trapping us in. The only way to make my escape was by causing a major scene involving people standing up, moving chairs, etc. So, I crossed my legs and gritted my teeth. After her show concluded (with two encores), I high-tailed it outta there and peed for, like, five minutes.

This is nothing compared to what the poor people in the musical Urinetown are enduring. At an indeterminate time in the future, the world has experienced a 20 year drought, leading to severe water shortage. A greedy megacorporation, Urine Good Company (UGC), has monetized this crisis by taking control of all public restrooms and regulating all bodily voiding activities. In short: it’s a privilege to pee, as monomaniacal Miss Pennywise (Carolyn Brady Riley) belts out to a poor soul unable to pay the proper fee. Those who don’t comply get sent to “Urinetown” — a not-so-metaphysical space located at the base of the UGC building.

This ridiculous-yet-plausible, macabre-yet-hilarious setup is presented to us, with deadpanned delight, by our narrators: the omnipresent Officer Lockstock (Clay Sanderson, showing a lot of potential in the role but undermined by muffled diction and an unbalanced sound system) and the precocious and pragmatic Little Sally (the delightful Brooke Sherrod Jaeky). Sample self-aware dialogue between the comedic duo: “Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition, Little Sally.” To which Little Sally replies, “What about a bad title?”

This was my first time seeing this scrappy little musical, which grew from its fringe roots into an unexpected Broadway hit during the 2001-2002 season. Chicago had a short-lived professional production at the Mercury Theater in 2006, which I missed. So, with no prior frame of reference, I’ll just say I had a great time at Circle Theatre’s production, and the very talented cast looked like they were having just as much fun.

My only significant reservations were the leading performances: Creg Sclavi’s Bobby Strong works hard, but doesn’t radiate the requisite passion and charisma to spearhead a grass-roots revolution against the evil UGC. In addition, I could hardly hear him when he sang — partly the sound issues at Circle, but mostly his inability to project in general. As his love interest, Hope, Laura Savage is cute as a button and sings like a dream, but could amp up the energy and desperation as well. Right now, you never get the sense Savage is fully invested in what’s happening around her. She’s fine, but detached.

The rollicking ensemble owns this show, and act two, which features signficantly less of Bobby and Hope, explodes with pent-up energy like a bladder ready to burst (nice, right?) We finally see what the show could be with a more compelling central couple.

Despite this unevenness, director and choreographer Kevin Bellie keeps the energy high and the laughs a plenty. The vocally assured cast offers tight harmony to Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ pastiche-heavy score, thanks to excellent music direction by Peter J. Storms. The band of four, housed in the bowels of Bob Knuth’s rusty pipe-filled set, offers solid support. And Jesus Perez’s steampunk-meets-1920s costumes add significantly to the quirky, off-kilter charm.

“Urinetown” plays through October 23 at Circle Theatre, 1010 Madison Street, Oak Park, Ill. More info here >

Porchlight’s stellar ‘Putting it Together’

More than a decade ago, I saw my first Chicago storefront-produced musical. It was the swinging Burt Bacharach tuner Promises, Promises, produced by a little theatre group called Porchlight Music Theatre. Porchlight has been on my radar since then, and while their shows over the years have been usually well-produced, they’ve often seemed a little, well, generic. But since Michael Weber took the reins as the new artistic director, he’s promised us “American musicals. Chicago style.”

If this smart and sophisticated production of Putting it Together is any indication of what else is in store, I’m delighted to say it seems Weber, with his succinct mantra in mind, has injected Porchlight with a much-needed point of view.

Read the rest of my review on Chicago Like a Local >

Also, not noted in this review: McKinley Carter’s shoes (especially her second act pair) are *to die*.

Equity Jeff Award nominations: huzzah, harrumph and huh?

Happy fall, kittens! As you can see from my “CTA Tracker” (as Beyoncé would say, “to the left, to the left”), this Chicago Theatre Addict is going to be quite busy very soon. On top of this, nominations for 2010-2011 Equity Jeff Awards were announced, and there are a lot of them. And I’ve some thoughts:

+ Merry over Merrily We Roll Along: I’m so happy Jeff gave this pitch-perfect production some nomination love. Seriously, it was one of the best productions of a musical I’ve seen in years.

+ Get it, Bethany Thomas: Her performance of “My Man’s Gone Now” in Court Theater’s Porgy and Bess made the show for me. I’m hoping she wins it. And that she sings her acceptance speech in a high belt.

+ A Twist of Water: This beautiful play deserves all the accolades it has coming for it, Jeff-wise.

+ The Tracy Letts factor: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everyone’s saying he’s a lock for his blistering turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but I have to say Harry Groener is my pick for ChiShakes’ The Madness of George III. While Letts was wonderful in a wonderful production, Groener took a rather ho-hum production and elevated into the stratosphere with his showstopping performance.

+ A Chorus Line love: I didn’t care much for Marriott’s production, so its multiple nominations surprised me. Yes, it featured a strong ensemble cast and good music direction, but Rachel Rockwell, as hard as she tried, could not make this show work in the round. I mean, when seasoned Broadway hoofer Mara Davi (Cassie) was so dizzy spinning around on that stage for her 10 minute “Music and the Mirror” solo that she literally fell out of her final iconic pose on press night, you know something’s off.

+ The Morton snub: I think I’m not alone is asking, “Where the @#$&^% is Amy Morton’s nomination for her daring, counterintuitive take on Martha in Steppenwolf’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I mean: huh? The best actress in a play nominations are always a tight race, but this seems absurd.

+ Detroit shutout: And speaking of Steppenwolf, Detroit, a new play by Lisa D’Amour which I loved, was completely shut out. I wonder of it’ll still transfer to Broadway?

What did you think of this year’s Equity Jeff nominations? Comment away!

Ludicrous Theatre offers a close-quarters ‘Rocky Horror Show’

Kevin Buswell stares down Kirk Jackson and Mara Stewart in Ludicrous Theatre’s “Rocky Horror Show.”

“Don’t dream it; be it,” sings Ludicrous Theatre’s energetic cast in tight harmony. This lyric, which closes out cult musical Rocky Horror Show, could easily be the mantra for this hardworking storefront theatre company. Someone had a dream to do Rocky Horror, and, dammit, Janet, they’re gonna do it — despite space and budget constraints.

And for the most part, they’ve succeeded — particularly in the first half of this 75 minute, intermissionless party. When you enter the 50-seat Heartland studio theatre space, the box office attendant (director Wayne Shaw) yells for “Maude,” a rumpled charwoman (Suzanne Bracken, who’s clearly having a ball in her multiple roles), to seat you. Maude loudly laments how her beautiful science fiction movie theatre is being transformed into a porno house. Vintage science fiction movie previews play on the screen in front. It’s a great introduction to the world of the play.

Then the (muffled and pre-recorded) music starts, and things sag a bit. Now, this isn’t a great show — it’s camp and oddball and tawdry, and you really need an engaged audience to make it work. Saturday night’s audience was… polite. And the cast sold their songs as best they could. I felt for them. There’s a lot of attitude and energy on the stage, and it takes some real moxy to wear pleather panties and fishnet stockings in such close quarters.

I do think the show could really take off if the ensemble could focus more on maintaining the energy than literally stopping the show to move overly complex set pieces between scenes.

Still, there are some standout performances, including Bracken (who’s doing double duty as “Maude” and a bust-heaving Magenta), Kelly Parker as squeaky Columbia, Brian Elliot as Dr. Scott and Kevin Buswell as a spot-on Riff Raff. They each manage to find their own characterizations in a show that seems very much directed in the template of the well-known movie’s performances. Unfortunately, David Goodman’s mostly well-sung Frank “drags” the show down a bit — not only is he a little too tepid to spark any sexual danger for poor Janet or Brad, someone needs to give the poor guy a lesson in walking in heels.

This has the potential to be a really fun night out if they pick up the pace, keep the energy high, and market the thing as a bawdy BYOB night out.

“Rocky Horror” plays through September 17 at Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 North Glenwood Chicago. More info here >

Chicago Like a Local: ‘Addams Family,’ ‘Memphis’ and more in store for Broadway in Chicago

Looking to have a fancy downtown Chicago experience at a splashy musical or star-studded play in the next few months? Check out my latest blog post on Chicago Like a Local covering Broadway in Chicago’s upcoming show lineup. Highlights include the kickoff of the North American tour of Love, Loss, and What I Wore starring SNL alum Nora Dunn, the incomparable Carrie Fisher in Wishful Drinking and the hit Broadway musical Memphis, along with several return engagements. Read my post here >

Some thoughts after watching Sondheim’s ‘Company’ in the movie theatre

A few friends and I drove up and over to icky Rosemont yesterday to see the filmed NYPhil concert of Company starring Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Patti LuPone, Martha Plimpton and more. Here are a few of my thoughts:

  • Neil Patrick Harris was very fine in the book scenes. He’s a charmer and, yet, non-threatening. I can imagine it’s pleasant to have him around to look at, drink with and practice your latest karate moves on. It’s just when he started singing that things grew problematic. Such as, his final notes in “Marry Me a Little.” “I’m ready!!” Um, I don’t you you are, girl.

  • Martha Plimpton, to me, was the strongest in the all-star cast. Too bad about her distracting wig, though. I think the costume designer may have bought that at the Spirit Halloween Supercenter in a vinyl bag labeled “Flower Power Pussycat.”

  • Anika Noni Rose looked either nervous or scared or both performing “Another Hundred People.” Her eyes were completely dead in every scene.

  • LuPone: I absolutely loved her. I thought she made bold, if a bit bizarre, choices with Joanne and sold the hell out of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Woe to those folks in the front rows who got her drink thrown on them in the final beat. However, my friend thought she was the absolute worst part of the thing. HATED her. The quality of her actual performance probably rests somewhere in the middle.

  • Katie Finneran didn’t give the best “Getting Married Today” I’ve ever heard, but she certainly gave it her all, and I laughed. She’s a natural comedian, and her scene following the number was very good.

  • Christina Hendricks, as the ditzy airline stewardess April, was also a surprise. I’ve never watched Mad Men, so really had no idea who she was, other than Tom and Lorenzo commenting on her inability to dress her busty frame. She gave off a breathy Marilyn Monroe vibe, and her “butterfly” monologue was pitch-perfect.

  • Overall, the direction was about what I’ve come to expect from Lonny Price, after having seen nearly every Ravinia Sondheim concert he’s staged. He’s a knack for doing a lot with very little rehearsal time, and keeping the action fluid when most other directors in a concert setting would opt for “stand and sing.” That said, this concert came across a bit flat onscreen.

  • The title of this filmed concert irks me: “Stephen Sondheim’s Company.” Yes, Sondheim wrote the music, but the original idea for the piece was George Furth, who wrote the play that became the musical (learn more here). However, they have to market the thing, and Sondheim is more recognizable than George Furth. But Stephen Colbert is more recognizable than Stephen Sondheim. So maybe they should have titled it “Stephen Colbert in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’” Or maybe just, “Stephen Colbert Sings!” But, based on what I saw yesterday, that would be false advertising.

  • Watching a filmed concert in a movie theatre is an odd experience. You want to clap, but then feel strange because who are you clapping for? You want to read a program, but there aren’t any. People are eating popcorn around you, which at first seems rude, but then you realize you’re at the Muvico in Rosemont and next door The Green Lantern is making explosions during NPH’s introspective moments. So you turn on your iPhone and play a round of Scrabble during a boring passage. What, what? Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. You don’t know.

Did you see it? What did you think?

With more than a few f-bombs, American Theater Company takes ‘Grease’ back to its original, working class roots

“We Go Together” — the cast of American Theater Company’s “The Original Grease”

Who knew Danny Zuko hung out at gay-friendly Foster Beach? I always suspected he was hiding something behind that “machismo” exterior.

I kid — but I couldn’t help but smirk listening to “Foster Beach,” the opening tune that predates karaoke favorite “Summer Nights” in The Original Grease. American Theater Company, working with Grease creator Jim Jacobs, has restored the iconic musical back to its original, Chicago-centric 1971 form, filled with f-bombs, gang fighting, puking in punch bowls and public urination.

Think of it as Grease, by way of vintage John Waters. And I loved every moment.

Now, I’m admittedly not a fan of the more well-known musical version, on which the 1978 movie was based. I’ve viewed the movie once or twice, and may have seen the show onstage at some point, but I honestly can’t remember. I do know that the basic plot remains intact, and the shoo-boppin’ score in this version retains only a handful of the tunes in the movie (including “We Go Together,” which here is staged as a rain-soaked group warrior cry) — so bear that in mind. Other than that, I’m not equipped to give a run-down on the differences between the two versions.

What I can tell you is this production kicks ass. It’s funny, real, gritty and full of heart. In fact, funny is an understatement. Looking around me, audience members’ mouths were agog — such as when Alaina Mills as Patty Simcox, while singing a bubbly song about Danny, runs to the back of ATC’s warehouse space, drops her drawers and pees in a Rydell High bathroom toilet. Not only is this completely in the “f*ck you” spirit of this revisited piece, but also director PJ Paparelli’s very clever way of diverting our attention during a scene change.

Clearly, this show isn’t for kiddies.

The Original Grease is brimming with hormones, insecurities, a raging desire to belong and attitude, attitude, attitude. These aren’t some cookie-cutter musical theatre clones; rather, Jacobs, along with his co-creator Warren Casey, has created a gang of street-smart kids from working class homes who know how to have a good time, even if it means a black eye or two.

The young (read: age-appropriate) ensemble is the star here. Sandy (a petite, nearly pre-teen-looking Kelly Davis Wilson) and Danny (Adrian Aguilar) actually have about as much stage time as their Rydell High classmates. Their disfunctional love story is just one of several different hormonally-driven plots. I was particularly taken by Jessie Fisher’s loopy Frenchie, who manages to create a fully-formed character without making her a ditzy cartoon. Jessica Diaz is also a standout as ball-bustin’ Rizzo, especially when she lets the cracks show beneath her steely demeanor.

Some things could be tightened, including the second act which includes more than a few moments that drag (such as a scene in a boiler room, which, according to the director’s notes, was smartly cut in the original production.) And the framing device, setting it up as a 50 year Rydell High School reunion, needs a bit more thought. But this is a milestone production for American Theater Company, and I’d expect a long run.

“The Original Grease” plays through August 21 at the American Theater Company. More info here >

‘Follies’ comes to Chicago Shakespeare Theatre: my thoughts

Chris Jones reports that Gary Griffin will direct Stephen Sondheim’s Follies to kick off the 2011-12 season at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

This is Big News for me. Some thoughts before I head out the door …

I had two immediate reaction to this news: excitement and disappointment.

Let’s get the disappointment out of the way first. You see, I was hoping someone would take my dream production of Follies and turn it into a reality. But with this news, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. I’m sure Griffin’ll do a lovely job with it, but, to me, the show really needs to take place in a classic proscenium theatre. Follies is about an era gone by and a venue, like the Uptown Theatre, that’s facing rapid extinction. Sure, the show is also about long-held regrets and shattered dreams and all that, but it’s also specific to a time and a place. No amount of stagecraft will pull me away from the fact that we’re sitting in a modern, thrust stage auditorium.

A scene from Chi Shakes' 2003 production of "A Little Night Music" directed by Gary Griffin.

And now for the excitement: One of my favorite productions I’ve ever seen in Chicago was Chi Shakes’ A Little Night Music, produced in 2003 and directed by Griffin. Everything about it was perfection — from the tuxedoed musicians behind a scrim, to the crisp, all-white settings, to the inspired casting of Barbara Robertson as Desiree (where I first fell in love with her). Simple, stylish, unexpected, sophisticated. So, I hope Griffin brings the same magic to Follies as he brought to Night Music.

This news also begs the question about casting, as this show really offers a chance to showcase our amazing local musical theatre talent. Perhaps Griffin will look to the recent concert at the Humanities Festival for inspiration, with Hollis Resnik as Sally?

We shall see!

New 25th anniversary tour of ‘Les Misérables’ is revolutionary

Lawrence Clayton (Jean Valjean) “Brings Him Home” in the new national tour of “Les Misérables.”

Les Misérables without the turntable? How is that possible?”

It surprised me the number of times I heard this question when I told people about this tour over the past few days. The thunderous original production, which opened in London in 1985, captivated our hearts for decades. I saw Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original staging twice: once in Detroit when my parents took me to see the unforgettable first national tour (which starred Chicago diva Hollis Resnik as Fantine and Tony-winner Victoria Clark as Madame Thénardier) and then in my late teens when I saw it in London (and was lucky enough to catch the original Eponine, Frances Ruffelle, who just happened to be revisiting her role for a few months).

Yes: the giant turntable, which spun that huge barricade so we could see it from all sides during the fighting scenes, was central to the staging. But not essential. This mega-musical’s material stands on its own.

This entirely sung-through adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel — which follows fugitive Jean Valjean’s journey to escape his past and seek redemption, with most of the action taking place during the cloud of an unsuccessful rebellion in 1832 Paris — is one of the most beloved musicals of the last few decades. I’m sure many of you can sing large chunks of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s powerballad-heavy score — or at least the tragic Fantine’s theme song, thanks to Ms. Susan Boyle. Les Mis is part of our pop culture.

So, while I was anticipating some different staging, sets and costumes in this “25th Anniversary Tour,” I wasn’t expecting to feel like I was experiencing this show for the first time.

Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell (why does it always take two directors to do this show?) have delivered a completely fresh interpretation, making this a more resourceful, cinematic and propulsive Les Mis. Gone is the chain-banging chain gang that opens up the show; in its place the scrim lifts to reveal a tableau of weary fugitives oaring a giant vessel — one of many surprisingly powerful new visuals.

Even Fantine’s big song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” which you’d think has been done to death (pardon the pun), is given a forceful, pleading interpretation (by the fabulous Betsy Morgan), rather than the typical cry-on-the-stage-defeated rendition.

Stunning projections, inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings, effectively set the locale without beating us over the head.

And while barricade isn’t as imposing as before, it’s still a sight to behold. However, (SPOILER!) poor Gavroche is forced to die offstage, since the set piece can’t spin around to allow us to see him cross enemy lines. A major misstep, but overcome by the strength of the whole.

Still, any production of Les Mis would be undermined by a less-than-perfect Jean Valjean, and Lawrence Clayton more than meets the demands. This is not an impersonation of Colm Wilkinson, as many prior Valjeans have, quite frankly, been. Clayton’s Valjean wears his guilt on his sleeve. His debt in life will always go unpaid, and it’s not until the final moments that he finds true release. That’s not to mention his singing of the score, which is brave, soulful and spine-tingling. His “Bring Him Home” is a masterclass in song phrasing.

I could devote paragraphs to to rest of the supporting cast (including standout performances from Shawna M. Hamic and Michael Kostroff as the delightfully devious Thénardiers), but I’ll just say they’re uniformly excellent. Except for Chaston Harmon as Eponine. Not only did she have some significant pitch problems with her big number “On My Own,” but she lacks any sense of vulnerability — which, as we all know, is essential to this role. But I never liked Eponine anyway, so this wasn’t as big a problem as it could have been.

To top off this wonderfully reimagined production, new orchestrations by Chris Jahnke (who orchestrated Legally Blonde, The Musical, of all things) give the show a fresh, contemporary sound by toning down the hokey, synthesized accompaniment that seeped through John Cameron’s original arrangements, and coloring it with percussion and brass.

CTA Index Rating: 10 out of 10 (We have a world-class production of a universally-loved musical here in Chicago, featuring an excellent leading-man performance. See it.)

“Les Misérables” plays through Feb. 27 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. More info here >


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