Bailiwick’s entertaining ‘Mahal’ explores the struggle of redefining family post-tragedy

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F Karmann Bajuyo, Kate Garassino and Kevin Matthew Reyes in Bailiwick Chicago Theater’s world premiere of production of “Mahal”

“Mahal” is Tagalog for “love.” It also means “expensive.” While it might seem odd that such an important word serves two meanings, when you think about it, it makes sense. Love is precious. It’s something that emerges only after great investment of time and emotion. Though, sometimes it comes unexpectedly — but we burn through it too quickly. It requires work to maintain.

So, yes: love has a price. And it’s not cheap.

In Danny Bernardo’s world premiere play, which is receiving a refreshingly accessible production at Stage 773 by Bailiwick Chicago, we meet a family — the Reyes — that’s been shaken up due to a recent tragedy. The family matriarch has passed, and it’s as if the glue that held the cracks together has crumbled. And now this fractured family must negotiate how all the pieces fit together.

It’s times like these where skeletons and deep down emotions come flooding from the proverbial closet. Is the family’s love for each other strong enough to whether this storm?

As Mikey, the youngest in the family, Kevin Matthew Reyes has a lot of growing up to do. He’s living off his mother’s inheritance while trolling men on Grindr. His older sister (Kate Garassino, giving one of the best performances I’ve seen from her yet) deals with an internal struggle of dragging her brother kicking and screaming into adulthood while maintaining peace. Middle child Roberto (Karmann Bajuyo) has met a new woman online (Jillian Jocson) from the Philippines, but does she have an ulterior motive for connecting with him? Meanwhile, Roberto (Joseph Anthony Foronda), the patriarch, hasn’t waited three months before redecorating for his new bachelorhood — much to his children’s horror.

In more than a few ways, Bernardo’s script reminds me a lot of Immediate Family — another fine ensemble play with roots in Chicago that centers around a family who comes together following a tragedy and must deal with acceptance and moving forward. There’s the uptight eldest daughter who’s sacrificed her life to keep the family together, the golden (and therefore, resented) son who happens to be gay, and the outsider boyfriend who gives them all perspective. However, while both plays have striking similarities, both have valid, distinct and compelling stories that tug at the heart.

At times Bernardo’s otherwise honest writing veers into Lifetime Movie land (the final scene between Mikey and his father doesn’t emotionally satisfy), but you do leave thinking about your own family and the investment you’ll make to maintain their love — through rich and poor times.

“Mahal” plays through August 2 at Stage 773. More info here >

A perplexing and pretentious ‘Lives of the Pigeons’

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Vincent L. Lonergan and Don Bender in The Side Project’s “Lives of the Pigeons”

Sometimes after seeing a show, I leave the theatre feeling more than a little disoriented. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — good theatre should challenge. So, following the world premiere of Sherod Santos’ perplexing Lives of the Pigeons, I went home and did a little research on the playwright.

Well, from what Google tells me, Santos is quite the established and award-winning scribe. He excels at deceivingly straightforward, unadorned poetry that reveals human insights peppered with shades of darkness, often in the form of violence or harsh language.

And this observation is quite apparent in Lives of the Pigeons, a curious, 60-minute study into how our actions, or lack of action, have consequence — good and bad and everything in between.

At least, this is what I *think* the play was about.

You see, we have two elderly gentlemen, Gus (Vincent L. Lonergan) and Max (Don Bender), who meet on regular occasion to play chess, drink beer and eat sandwiches. We learn through their oblique banter that their previous hangout was destroyed by a fire, so now they’ve moved the chess party outdoors and into the park.

Gus represents an extreme lack of accountability. Act first, question later. Even though the signs tell him not to, Gus feeds the pigeons. What harm does it do? Gus loses a chess bet (not much of a surprise, given his passive approach to life mirrors his chess game) and is required to get the sandwiches and beer, but only comes back with sandwiches because that’s simply what the clerk gave him. When a mysteriously dapper man with a cane (Matthew Lloyd) makes a guest appearance, he instructs Gus to suck his own thumb. And he does.

Wait, what?

Exactly.

Max, the Type-A to a T, questions everything and gets annoyed when things don’t go to plan. When he comes back to find Gus sprawled out on the ground claiming a man with a cane got him in this predicament, Max demands answers.

As did I.

Look: I respect that Santos has written this dense puzzle of a play. Yet, if there’s a compelling message or idea in here, I just couldn’t latch on. Nor did I really care — despite some excellent acting and unfettered direction by Adam Webster, not once was I engaged in this tale, which mostly seemed like an hour of pointless arguing. I simply felt confused, annoyed and, like those poor pigeons, eager for a crumb.

“Lives of the Pigeons” plays through June 30 at The Side Project. More info here >

Don’t cry for him: Ben Rimalower is taking his hit one-man show on a rainbow tour

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Writer, director and performer Ben Rimalower knows a thing or two about high belting. No, he’s not a singer per say, but he does appreciate the finer belts in life — including those of Broadway icon Patti LuPone.

As the writer and performer of his acclaimed and award-winning one-man show, Patti Issues, Rimalower has turned his obsession with the high-belting La LuPone into a personal artistic high point.

Patti Issues isn’t just a show about diva obsession — it’s an onstage self discovery about finding your inner LuPone, as it were, to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In Rimalower’s case, it’s a closeted, self-destructive father who went on a drug-fueled tear that left his family in tatters.

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Rimalower with LuPone following a performance of “Patti Issues”

And the payoff in telling such a deeply personal story has been huge. The Village Voice called his show, “one of the best (and now longest-running) offerings of the year.” And The Advocate called it the “best NYC theater of 2012.” Even LuPone herself caught the show and gave it her enthusiastic thumbs up (you can even watch her commend Rimalower when they both appeared on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live“). And following an extended run at The Duplex in Manhattan’s West Village, Rimalower is taking his show on a self-professed “rainbow tour,” with a two night only performance on June 13 and 14 at Mary’s Attic up in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood.

Anyone who’s spent five minutes with me knows what a huge LuPone fan I am, so it was only a matter of time that Rimalower and I crossed paths at some point in our early fandom. In fact, back in undergrad, in response to there being no discernible online presence for the diva, I created a now long-defunct “Patti LuPone Shrine” on geocities (remember geocities?) which Rimalower freely admits to frequenting.

To prep for Rimalower’s upcoming Windy City debut, I couldn’t miss this opportunity to grill him on all things LuPone:

What are three words you’d use to describe LuPone?

Fierce, hilarious and thrilling.

Has your affection for (or perception of) LuPone changed now that you’ve gotten to know her at a face-to-face level?

Not at all. Patti is everything I dreamed she’d be.

What LuPone recording do you keep going back to? In other words, this LuPone track on your iPod never fails to get your heart pumping.

Well, I have to say “Far Away Places” is my favorite Patti album—SO FAR! That opening track, “Gypsy In My Soul” is so exciting that I belt along with it to warm up for my show.

What’s your favorite LuPone hairstyle? Please select from the four options below:

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A.

I understand you’ve had many opportunities to observe LuPone in the rehearsal room. What lessons have you learned from this “fly on the wall” perspective about your craft as an actor/director?

Wow, so much. I mean I could write a whole show about Patti in a rehearsal room—two shows, actually: one on the artist and one on the personality. Patti has a deep understanding of her craft as an actor and killer instincts as a performer — and theater is in her blood.

What is the rarest LuPone recording you have in your collection?

The rarest Patti LuPone recording I have is a bootleg I made myself on a crappy tape recorder of her concert with the Baltimore Symphony in either Fall 1998 or Spring 1999. Her arrangement of “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” was so sassy I had my musical director lift it when I was directing Joy. Also, it’s fun to listen to me and my best friend Marissa commenting on everything Patti did. Live-tweeting before there was Twitter.

LuPone: You either love her or hate her. Do you think that you can make a snap judgement about someone’s character based on if they love her or hate her? Has this impacted friendships you’ve had?

Totally. I think that anyone who hates Patti LuPone is either a moron, or hasn’t seen her at her best. Or maybe they have their own issues.

Did you suffer through “Parker” like I did this weekend just to see LuPone’s scenes? (If so, you are a true fan, my friend.)

No, but I would have! I’ve watched many unwatchable things for the love of LuPone! And I will watch Parker. I’m still burning for the 3 hours I sat through “Bonano: A Godfather’s Story” before realizing she’d been cut out!

Now: to your show — what compelled you to write it?

I’ve been a director all my life, but I’d started blogging and wanted to explore writing something more longform. The most natural subject for me to tackle was, of course, Patti. Then, when I started writing, what was coming out was more about me.

Did you ever think your show would become such an underground success? How has this changed your life? Do you have any other one man shows up your sleeve?

I hoped Patti Issues would be the success it has. I’ve been craving this more a long time, longer than I even realized. This has changed my life in many ways—and in many ways, my life is exactly the same. The biggest and most important change is my confidence in myself as a writer. I am working on my next solo show already.

Will I cry watching it?

You may cry. I certainly hope you will laugh!

What was going through your head performing this show in front of your muse, LuPone?

I was praying that she would like it.

“Patti Issues” plays June 13 and 14 at Mary’s Attic. Get tickets here.

Mercury Theater’s enjoyable ‘Barnum’ needs more brass

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P.T. Barnum knew how to put on a show. With some manipulative marketing and a dash of spectacle, he could sell you a wooden nickel for a dollar.

The 1980 musical Barnum, which features a jovial, ear-wormy score by Cy Coleman, captured this celebrated flim-flam artist’s ascent to a household name as partner in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. And Mercury Theater Chicago presents an appealing, family friendly production through June 16.

In the title role, Chicago favorite Gene Weygandt offers a peppy and approachable Barnum. Surrounded by a small-yet-mighty ensemble of actor-singer-acrobats, the show hits all the right marks — though perhaps not as thrillingly as one might hope.

Granted, Barnum, a musical with circus elements, is one of the more challenging shows to produce. So I have to applaud Mercury, under artistic director L. Walter Stearns, for daring to take it on. And, for the most part, the show delivers. But a perpetual sense of hesitancy keeps the show from flying high without a net.

To start, Weygandt, while likeable, hasn’t yet found the command this role requires. He too often defaults to baffled observer when he should be orchestrating the action around him. In fact, everyone (aside from the warm and gloriously voiced Corey Goodrich as Barnum’s pragmatic wife Charity) seemed a bit tentative the night I saw it. And rightly so: actor/singers are required to execute physical stunts, and stunt makers are required to act and sing.

I’m sure following a few weeks of performances, the show will find its footing.

Eugene Dizon leads a small band that has some nice moments but desperately needs at least two more brass players (including a tuba — I nearly got up and left the theatre when a synthesizer started playing the opening of “Come Follow the Band.” What band? I just hear a Casio.)

“Barnum” plays through June 16 at Mercury Theater Chicago. More info here >

Strawdog’s raucous ‘Improbable Frequency’ could use a bit more probability

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While the rest of Europe was suffering through WWII, Ireland stood fast in its neutrality, even referring to the war as “The Emergency” in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the war, and the news surrounding it, with their people.

Improbable Frequency, an unapologetically zany musical comedy by Arthur Riordan (book and lyrics) and Bell Helicopter (music), explores this historical footnote with dizzying wordplay and a highly improbable storyline involving a secret society of spies, a mad scientist and a barrage of wordy English music hall patter songs. Think of it as Monty Python meets Gilbert and Sulliven mixed with a huge dose of The 39 Steps.

We are introduced to Tristram Faraday (Mike Dailey), a savant-like British code breaker who unexpectedly (and somewhat reluctantly) finds himself enlisted by the British Intelligence to carry out a super-secret spy mission (is there any other?) in 1941 Dublin. Along his travels, he meets an Irish lady spy (a sweet Sarah Goeden) who might be on his trail for suspect reasons, and then something about a German physicist (Eric Paskey) who’s manipulated radio waves to alter time and Irish weather? Or something? I totally lost the plot by that point — and, frankly, didn’t care.

Truthfully, I have a pretty low tolerance for off-the-hook zany — if it’s not grounded by some human-scale, or at least, compelling, storyline — and at two hours and two acts, Riordan’s punny script and lyrics, which give off an “aren’t we so clever?” vibe, could use a trim-down. Strawdog’s production, directed by Kyle Hamman, tears into the lunacy with abandon, offering up mugging and running about from start to finish, practically demanding you pay attention. And, despite a game cast giving it their all (and looking like they’re having a ball doing so), it’s exhausting.

That said, some may go for this sort of thing. Lord knows the press night audience was laughing their britches off.

“Improbable Frequency” plays through March 30 at Strawdog Theatre Company. More info here >

Music Theatre Company’s sweetly sincere ‘The Baker’s Wife’ charms

Sometimes all you need is a committed, eager, talented cast, a piano and a director with vision to deliver a delightful evening of musical theatre. And Music Theatre Company in Highland Park, under the direction of Dominic Missimi, is serving up a scrappy, sincere and streamlined production of that legendary flop musical, The Baker’s Wife — a show with a magnificent score by Stephen Schwartz and a charming, if problematic book, by Joseph Stein.

Perhaps most amazingly, this production, which was marketed as a “staged concert,” is nearly fully staged, with costumes, blocking and committed performances from a refreshingly diverse cast — a remarkable feat given Missimi and cast had just seven, three-hour rehearsal days to pull it together. Indeed, this is a Baker’s Wife that embraces the (perhaps overly simple) storyline with aplomb.

Upon watching this production, it became clear to me why this musical might not have achieved the success its creators had hoped for (famously, the show toured for six months in 1975 with significant script and cast changes, before abruptly cancelling its long-delayed Broadway opening). While a charming show, it’s not a particularly engaging one: we know where it’s all going long before it gets there, and the characters are painted in very broad strokes. In the version of the script performed by Music Theatre Company, the baker’s wife, Genevieve (a lovely Sarah Bockel) abandons her doting, sweet and significantly older husband Aimable (the endearing Peter Kevoian) for the dashing Dominique (David Sajewich) with relatively little arm twisting. He kisses her, she sings “Meadowlark,” and she’s outta there. But, in act two, she decides, in a single scene, it was a poor decision and crawls back to her broken-hearted husband, hat in hand. And with little push back, he accepts her.

Everyone comes off a bit naive as no real conflict has materialized — aside from the small French village having to forgo fresh-baked bread for a spell.

So, while the show may have its problems, Music Theatre Company’s production works through them by delivering the paper thin material with a heaping cupful of energy and honesty.

“The Baker’s Wife” in concert plays through Feb. 10 at Music Theatre Company in Highland Park. More info here.

HuffPo Review: Mercury Theater’s ‘A Grand Night for Singing’ is ‘Something Wonderful’

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It’s a very rare thing to come across a show that embraces its simplicity with virtually zero pretense. A Grand Night for Singing at Mercury Theater is such a show. This perfectly enjoyable musical revue celebrating the classic scores of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein isn’t afraid to make the songs the star by featuring five excellent singer/actors backed by a sparkling five piece ensemble featuring two strings, harp, piano and percussion (excellent music direction by Eugene Dizon).

Unlike another revue taking place in the northern suburbs honoring a popular West End composer, this show begins with a subtle prelude: a bass and piccolo echoing the sounds of twilight — a chirping bird, a sunrise, a new beginning. A cello hums in and the cast strolls out to welcome us with “The Sounds of the Earth,” which gradually transforms into a lilting opening medley. From there, the cast (including Marya Grandy, Robert Hunt, Leah Morrow, Stephen Schellhardt and Heather Townsend) trade off with each other in pairs, trios and solos to explore R&H’s penchant for the themes around new love, lost love and hopeful love. Read the full review on The Huntington Post >>

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