KURIOS ~ Cabinet of Curiosities – CIRQUE DU SOLEIL – REVIEW

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By Venus Zarris

In 1893 Chicago was host to an attraction of artistic, industrial, cultural and creative curiosities the likes of which the world had never seen brought together in one place. The White City and its surrounding halls, tents and fairgrounds created an exposition of the wonders of the world and astonished the mind-boggled fairgoers.

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Not since the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 has Chicago seen such a mesmerizing fusion of freak show, spectacle and style as it sees with Cirque du Soleil’s incomparable KURIOS ~ Cabinet of Curiosities. With a hallucinogenic 19th century atmosphere, this full on phantasm of fun delivers a spellbinding evening of artistic and acrobatic marvels that entice the imagination, startle the senses and exceed reasonable expectations while transporting the audience into a fully realized Steampunk dreamscape.

KURIOS ~ Cabinet of Curiosities dares the audience to submerge into a wild world of mechanical and anthropomorphic characters that bounce along a whimsical musical pulse as they defy gravity and reality with acts that fly through the air, tickle the funny bone and induce more gasps than any 4th of July fireworks display. I actually lost count of how many times I audibly caught myself saying, “NO WAY!”

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Under the artistic guidance of Guy Laliberté and Jean-François Bouchard , Writer/Director Michel Laprise creates the perfect production ~ as a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ defines Cirque du Soleil’s artistic, theatrical and acrobatic aesthetic. Director of Creation Chantal Tremblay, Set/Props Designer Stéphane Roy, Costume Designer Philippe Guillotel, Composer/Musical Director Raphaël Beau lead a team of flawless designers who together manifest an alternative dimension where reality is replaced with splendid surprises, impossible exploits and heart pounding excitement.

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As each act unfolds, you are drawn in to their delicate details and explosive energies. From juggling to contortion to handbalancing high above the stage to clowning to all manner of startling aerobatics, the impeccable performers manifest the seemingly impossible right before your eyes. The costumes are works of art in and of themselves. The music, performed by spectacular musicians, is both haunting and toe-tapping. Even acts that may seem familiar at first are re-imagined into unexpectedly fabulous feats.

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KURIOS ~ Cabinet of Curiosities marks Cirque du Soleil’s 35th production and it is as fresh and fantastical as any of its predecessors, proving once again that there is no end to the creativity and commitment to excellence that this international institution of entertainment has established. Often imitated but NEVER duplicated, Cirque du Soleil is the platinum standard for world-class theatrical wonders.

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In a world where mediocrity is routinely marketed as marvelous and garbage is pawned off as glamour, Cirque du Soleil continues to shine through the fog of talentless fraud to beautifully give the world genuine and uncompromised brilliance. DO NOT MISS this mysterious marvel under the big top! KURIOS ~ Cabinet of Curiosities is the closest you’ll come to time traveling back to the White City and the most delightful show you’ll see this summer.

4 STARS

(“KURIOS ~ Cabinet of Curiosities” runs through September 20 under the Big Top in the United Center’s parking Lot K, 1901 W. Madison Street, Chicago. 877-924-7783)

KURIOS ~ Cabinet of Curiosities – CIRQUE DU SOLEIL

KURIOS production photos by Martin Girard.

Nerd Burlesque Cocktail Hour Show @ ZANIES Rosemont

Gozer, ResizedShow Nerd Burlesque Cocktail Hour Show

The Glitter Guild is hosting their first ever “Wizard World Weekend” show, Nerd Burlesque Cocktail Hour Show at Zanies Rosemont (5437 Park Place, Rosemont, IL).  Starting at 5pm guests can grab a table and order food and drink.  The one-hour show will begin at 6pm and feature a mix of nerd-themed burlesque striptease and stand-up comedy.

Burlesque performers include Red Rum as Gozer the Gozerian,  Paris Green as Glactus, Rob Racine as Blue Lantern, Slightly Spitfire as American McGee’s Alice, and Cruel Valentine and Sauda Namir performing a robo-duet together as Bender and Rosie the Robot, as well as solo numbers as the Flying Spaghetti Monster and a very sparkly Taun Taun.  Stand-up Comedy will be provided by Bill Bullock and Rachel McCartney.

The event will be hosted by Glitter Guild co-producer MsPixy and her sloshy sidekick Giant Martini—rumor has it that MsPixy will even take the stage in a rare striptease appearance if time allows.

 

About the Glitter Guild:

Known for their unique mix of burlesque striptease, comedy, and authentic nerdery, the Glitter Guild is a wandering troupe of Con-going Cosplayers grown too hot for their costumes. These passionate fangirls (and boys) give the same loving care to their costuming that they lavish on their fandom. What kind of underthings does a Klingon wear? Where else do Chthulu’s tentacles grow? These are questions the Glitter Guild considers carefully and answers with grins, glitter, and glee.

 

Presented by The Glitter Guild

Aug 22, 2015 – 6:00 pm (doors open at 5:00)

@ ZANIES Rosemont

5437 Park Place, Rosemont

Show Type: Burlesque

Box Office: 847-813-0484

ZANIES Rosemont – Nerd Burlesque Cocktail Hour Show

Grant Park Music Festival – Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto, July 24, 2015 – CONCERT REVIEW

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Grant Park Orchestra

Emmanuel Villaume, Guest Conductor

Andrew von Oeyen, Piano

By Lori Dana

For fans of Chicago’s greatest summer asset, this season’s Grant Park Music Festival has been a meteorological challenge. Our wildly variable weather has had faithful picnickers alternately bundled in blankets, huddled under umbrellas and fanning away the muggy heat, sometimes all in the same week. One is tempted to say that the season’s biggest quandary has been whether or not to believe the weather report when planning each evening’s concert attire. But that would be giving short shrift to the marvelous programmers of the festival. Lead by music director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, they continue to challenge and educate us with their deft combinations of popular favorites, bold new works and little known, but brilliant music rooted in cultural traditions outside of the North American lexicon.  This weekend, listeners were treated to two evenings of French (and French-inspired) music, and finally some true Chicago summer weather.

Guest conductor of the program that also included works by Suppé, Mozart and Bizet was Frenchman Emmanuel Villaume. Already familiar to many Chicago opera fans from his inspiring work on recent Lyric productions of The Merry Widow, La Bohéme and The Tales of Hoffmann, the lean and sprightly Villaume radiated palpable joy on the podium, his fluid movements like that of a dancer as he lead the orchestra through the anticipation and bravado of Suppé’s A Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna. Though not a French composer (Suppé was born in what is now Croatia), this overture is part of an operetta he composed in the Parisian style, a response to the popularity of works by Jacques Offenbach, the composer of Hoffmann.) Paris also served as inspiration for Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 in D Major. Packed with signature high-energy melodies and exciting tonal contrasts, the “Paris” symphony in large part belies the young composer’s grief at his mother’s illness and death on the trip that produced the work.

The second half of the program featured American soloist Andrew von Oeyen’s rich and dramatic interpretation of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. In the spirit of the French master, von Oeyen tackled the daunting technicalities of the work with relative ease and dazzling style. As the sun dipped below the western skyline, the rousing tarantella of the final movement was punctuated by clattering helicopter blades and the distant wail of a siren that seemed to add to the transformative power of the performance. Even patrons on the lawn were brought to their feet in appreciation. A popular Italian folk dance, the tarantella also figured prominently in the evening’s finale, Roma (originally Roman Carnival) by Georges Bizet. Begun during his tenure at the Villa Medici in 1859, the opening movement invokes the theme of the hunt, with its brass fanfare and galloping rhythms. The scherzo and andante that follow create a vision of narrow streets, perhaps bustling with an early morning market, frozen momentarily in a dreamy golden sunrise. The magic of Villaume’s conducting style was evident in the swirling dance of the final movement, as the orchestra seemed not to be following the maestro, but moving together with him as one graceful body. An enamored audience responded with a second, prolonged ovation as fireflies on the Great Lawn reflected the rising stars.

4 STARS

Classical Concerts in Millennium Park | The Grant Park Music Festival

Jay Pritzker Pavilion images by Venus Zarris

Beast Women 2015 Spring Series – REVIEW

Michelle  500x72By J. Scott Hill

After long stints at the Greenhouse and the Den, Beast Women have brought their menagerie of variety acts back to their old home at PROP THTR for their 2015 Spring Series. Producer and emcee Michelle Power kept the opening night, late-night crowd pumped through the showcase of diverse and powerful female performers.

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Blonde bombshell Royal T. titillated with an old-fashioned striptease. Holly Beaudry brought the laughs with her self-effacing, autobiographical brand of comedy. Diane Hamm delivered a blues-fueled fan dance in the classic style. Comedic songstress Tiffany Streng used an acoustic guitar and her smoky singing voice to teach the audience that, when it comes to songwriting, Ke$ha isn’t a patch on Bob Dylan’s ass.

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Burlesque performer Shimmy Laroux put on her red satin dress and black feather boa, cranked up the Muddy Waters, and raised the temperature. Monologist Jillian Erickson spun a multifaceted narrative, covering subjects ranging from noisy birds to assholes to volunteering at hospice. Commedia dell’arte clown Noel Williams filled the room with joy in her search for a real hug.

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Burlesque performer Diva La Vida shimmied and shook and showed off her moves, more Fosse than Jagger, wearing a white trilby and not much more. Eileen Tull performed an original spoken-word piece entitled “A Selfie of my Lobotomy”; thick with internal rhyme and hip-hop rhythms, Tull’s stunning performance was as much Childish Gambino as it was Oscar Brown, Jr. In a sultry display of skill and elegance, Brywn Arlwyn fused elements of belly dance with modern moves in rhythmic alchemy.

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In perhaps the most stunning performance of the evening, Greta Humphrey worked the aerial hoop. Often, a hoop acrobat will be suspended ten or more feet in the air, but Humphrey worked from a free-standing rigging point — think of a hoop mounted to a small swingset frame. Hoop work seems exponentially more difficult close to the ground compared to high in the air. As Humphrey moved among tableaux with strength and agility, she came perilously close to dashing her brains out on the concrete slab below. Elegant and exciting, Greta Humphrey’s aerial act left me with my heart in my mouth, but a smile on my face.

Diverse, daring, and delightful, Beast Women 2015 Spring Series brought a return to an old stomping ground, and a continuation of excellence one has come to expect from Chicago’s premier all-female cabaret.

 

3 1/2 STARS

(“Beast Women 2015 Spring Series” runs Saturdays at 10:30 PM, through May 16th (with the new talent showcase Beast Women Rising on Sunday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m.) at PROP THTR, 3502 N. Elston Ave., Chicago, IL).

Beast Women Productions

 

Beast Women 2015 Spring Series performance images by Artistree Photography.

Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? – REVIEW

Second_City_etc_Soul_Brother_PR.002  500x72By J. Scott Hill

The Second City e.t.c.’s new revue, Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?, has a sketch comedy dream team dominated by three women. Yes, Scott Morehead and Tim Ryder are fine utility players. Yes, Eddie Mujica believably disappears into every part he plays, even when he plays an inanimate object. The leaders of this team, however, are Lisa Beasley, Rashawn Nadine Scott, and Carisa Barreca.

Second_City_etc_Soul_Brother_PR.006  500x72Lisa Beasley is a wonderful paradox: her petite, demure physicality belies her commanding stage presence. Rashawn Nadine Scott is the kind of performer who draws the audience to her whether she is the focus of the scene or filling out the background, the kind of performer that makes the most out of every moment onstage.

Second_City_etc_Soul_Brother_PR.003  500x72Without doubt, the team captain here is Carisa Barreca. Barreca has been a very busy and valued contributor to The Second City universe over the past few years. Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? is Barreca’s third consecutive revue at The Second City e.t.c. During this time, she has also worked with The Second City’s well-reviewed collaborations with both Lyric Opera (The Second City’s Guide to the Opera) and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (The Art of Falling). With her platinum hair, vintage-style dresses, and welcoming smile, Barreca lulls an audience into a false sense of security, only to pounce with her panther-like comedy reflexes and her razor-sharp wit. Actor, improviser, writer, singer, dancer, and choreographer, Carisa Barreca is one to watch — in Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? and in the future.

Second_City_etc_Soul_Brother_PR.007  500x72Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? runs scattershot over society’s ills, from the one of the least touchable of hot-button issues to some of the most niggling idiosyncrasies of contemporary American life. One sketch has two elderly African-American men dispensing their wisdom about the current state of racism in America. Another sketch involves how the first wave of American tourists in Cuba for over half a century will be perceived by Cubans. Another depicts a person’s relationship with their anthropomophized smartphone (this sketch is far more on point — and pathetic — than Spike Jonze’s Her).

Second_City_etc_Soul_Brother_PR.005  500x72Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? is throwing some heat, but chooses not to face many really tough batters. Of course African Americans who fought through the civil rights struggle of the 1960s will have wisdom to impart regarding today’s struggles. Of course there will be mutual culture shock between Americans and Cubans, neither of whom have been allowed to take that 101-mile ferry ride between Key West and Havana since 1961. Of course nearly everybody is annoyed by everyone else’s relationship to their smartphones (but not their own).

The Second City e.t.c.’s thirty-ninth revue, Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? is terrific — well written, well performed, well directed, and funny. This cast is a team of future hall-of-famers, who, when allowed to choose their own lineup of opponents, could have taken on a few more heavy hitters.

 

3 STARS

 

(“Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?is in Open Run at The Second City e.t.c., 1608 N. Wells, Chicago — in Piper’s Alley. 312-337-3992)

The Second City – Performances – Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?

 

Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? production photos by Todd Rosenberg.

 

* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Soul Brother, Where Art Thou? – Second City – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago

Carousel – Lyric Opera REVIEW

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Carousel

Music by Richard Rodgers, Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

Lyric Opera’s re-imagined production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic has everything a knowledgeable audience looks for in a Broadway musical. The dynamic cast combines deft acting with knock-your-socks-off vocal talent; a sweeping stage provides the proper scope for big drama and big romance, and a surprisingly dark and sensual edge in both set design and stage direction transforms this comfortable old favorite into the kind of theater experience contemporary audiences can connect with on a visceral level.  Carousel‘s outstanding production design is evident everywhere: in painter Paolo Ventura’s beautifully simple tintype colored sets, in the deftly designed lighting, the dazzling choreography. Even the wistfully trailing petals of the cherry trees reflect an exquisite eye for detail.

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Considered the most operatic of the famous duo’s collaborations, Carousel is the story of Billy Bigelow, a charming ne’er do well who makes his living as the barker on Mullin’s Carousel, a carnival ride that embodies the romantic dreams of many a working girl in the textile mills along the New England coast. Julie Jordan and her friend Carrie Pipperidge are two such girls, who after spending long days at their looms, seek escape in the happy swirl of the carousel’s sparkling lights and haunting music. It is there that Billy and Julie cross paths, and in a series of events driven by mutual hard headedness and bravado, they end up spending the night together. Filling in the backstory with a series of musical interludes ranging from sweetly innocent (When I Marry Mr. Snow) to blustery (June Is Bustin’ Out All Over) to downright suggestive (Blow High, Blow Low) Rodgers & Hammerstein paint a picture of simple working folk whose lives hide difficult and complicated emotions. As we fast forward into the future, we find Billy and Julie married and Carrie preparing to walk down the aisle with stoic fisherman Enoch Snow. Both Billy and Julie have sacrificed their jobs to be together. Flat broke, they have been taken in by Julie’s cousin at her seaside inn. When Julie announces that she is pregnant, Billy decides in desperation to join itinerant sailor Jigger Craigin in robbing the owner of the mill as he walks to the pier alone with the payroll for his shipping crew. Caught in the act, Billy commits suicide rather than face prison.  The final act has Billy at the gates of Heaven, looking down on his now-grown daughter and realizing how much they both have missed.

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Carousel boasts a sterling cast led by Steven Pasquale in the role of Billy Bigelow. Fans of Pasquale’s television work (Rescue Me, Do No Harm, Six Feet Under, The Good Wife) will be bowled over by the beauty and power of his singing voice, which has gotten little to no exposure in his TV roles. It is well known on Broadway, however, where Pasquale recently starred in The Bridges of Madison County for which he received a Drama Desk nomination. Pasquale’s Billy is full of bluster and bravado but just beneath the swagger, vulnerability and uncertainty lurk. Already a veteran of successful Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals (most recently as a Drama Desk award winner for Cinderella), Laura Osnes plays Julie Jordan as a complex combination of naive small town girl and stubborn, philosophical woman. She sings this role with a kind of simple, forthright quality that suits the hard-working mill worker perfectly. On the other hand, Jenn Gambatese’s big Broadway style voice and wise-cracking delivery make sidekick Carrie Pipperidge a hilarious diversion, adding just the right amount of humor to keep Carousel from leaning toward the maudlin. Lyric audiences who loved a somewhat subdued Ms. Gambatese as Maria in last years’ Sound of Music will delight in experiencing her at full power.

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Other cast standouts include Charlotte D’Amboise in a superbly nuanced performance as carnival owner Mrs. Mullin, beloved veteran Tony Roberts as The Starkeeper, and opera star Denyce Graves, dipping her toe into musical theater as cousin Nettie Fowler. Supported by the powerful Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus (led by conductors David Chase and Michael Black, respectively) and an ensemble of fabulous dancers, Lyric presents a musical package and spectacular venue that would be hard to top, even on the Great White Way. In shifting the setting of this piece from the prosperous Golden Age at the turn of the century to the Depression Era, director and choreographer Rob Ashford has succeeded in bringing out the humanity of Oscar Hammerstein’s characters and the pathos of the untenable situations in which they find themselves. Against this backdrop, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s gorgeous expressions of longing and hope are even more relevant and bittersweet.

4 STARS

(“Carousel,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through May 3rd at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Carousel production photos by Todd Rosenberg and Robert Kusel. 

Tosca – Lyric Opera REVIEW

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 Tosca

By Giacomo Puccini

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

Most people with even a passing interest in opera are familiar with Tosca. One of a trio of blockbusters from the height of Puccini’s career, Tosca (along with La Bohéme and Madama Butterfly) cemented the composer’s position among the greatest masters of the operatic form. Puccini chose to tell stories of passionate love entangled with political intrigue and betrayal, and the lyricism of his music both reflects the passion of the characters and creates a stark contrast with the dark days they inhabit. Over a hundred years after they were first performed, Puccini’s works retain a remarkably contemporary feel. That, and the familiarity of most opera audiences with the plot lines, makes these works particularly fertile territory for directors and production designers wishing to reimagine them in a more “modern” setting.

In the case of Lyric Opera’s latest production of Tosca, director John Caird and set/costume designer Bunny Christie have moved the opera forward from its original setting in the early 19th Century to the turn of the twentieth, about the time the work first premiered. The story of two free spirited lovers, the painter Cavaradossi and the diva Floria Tosca, takes a dark political turn when the artist’s friend, an anti-government revolutionary, seeks shelter at Cavaradossi’s villa after escaping from prison. Government henchman Baron Scarpia sees the situation as the perfect opportunity, both to capture an enemy of the state and to create a situation in which Tosca, long the object of his sexual obsession, will have to submit to him in order to save her lover from the gallows.

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From both musical and design perspectives, Lyric’s production falls just short of perfection. Two rising young stars, with major voices and even more major onstage chemistry, bring Cavaradossi and Tosca into brilliant focus. Model handsome tenor Brian Jagde inhabits his character with satisfying ease, and his delicious voice is everything we love about bel canto singing. For her part, Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan possesses both the physical and vocal fire that Tosca requires. Together these two young singers create an appealing and totally believable pair of passionate lovers. We wished for a bit more of that passion in Evgeny Nikitin’s Scarpia. Though possessed of a marvelous voice, Nikitin’s portrayal of Tosca’s nemesis seems a bit lukewarm. There are many aspects of character development in Tosca‘s libretto that adapt well to contemporary interpretation. The character of Scarpia is not one of them. Scarpia represents everything evil in Tosca’s world: greed, political corruption, sexual degradation and domination.  Caird’s decision to develop Scarpia into a more thoughtful character makes little sense. Men like Scarpia, then as now, are driven by their instincts not by their intellect.  Satisfying their desire is the sum total of the thought process which eventually leads to their demise. To make Scarpia any more reasonable is to take away a good deal of the drama from Tosca‘s story. The Baron never really bargains in good faith for Cavaradossi’s life. He will have Tosca and kill her lover too.

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Bunny Christie’s updated production design fares quite a bit better than Caird’s reimagined villain. From bloody curtains to the desolate feel of the deconstructed sets, Christie’s vision of a war-torn nation rife with religious fervor, political intrigue and death creates a compelling new backdrop for Tosca. Between acts, the curtains fall to the stage as if revealing a new work of art: the lighthearted painter exposed as a devoted insurgent, the pious Tosca’s fiery sensuality revealed, the dedicated public servant Scarpia’s mask stripped away to expose his lascivious treachery. Another effective visual device, a mysterious child dressed as the Madonna, appears and disappears throughout the production, ostensibly at points where Tosca turns to her faith for guidance. That connection is not totally clear, but the child’s presence adds an other worldly feel to the proceedings that is not at all unpleasant. One small detail, however, does steal a bit of melodrama that is always quite satisfying when experiencing Tosca. After the shocking act of stabbing her would-be rapist to death, not one drop of blood sullies Tosca’s white ball gown, and so we are robbed of what should be the culminating visual image of her very satisfying revenge. After the big tease of those transitional curtains, the only trace of blood we see is Tosca’s own, before she flings herself into oblivion in the concluding scene.

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Were it not for the perfect emotional tone and flawless technique of the singers in this production, along with the exquisite musicality of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus (under the direction of Dmitri Jurowski and Michael Black, respectively), these small production missteps would be game changers for Lyric’s Tosca. As it stands, they are minor distractions to a major display of world-class operatic talent in a thought provoking new setting.

3 ½ STARS

(“Tosca,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through March 14th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Tosca production photos by Todd Rosenberg and Michael Brosilow. 

Panic on Cloud 9 – REVIEW

The Second City Panic on Cloud 9By J. Scott Hill

More than the Goodman, even more than Steppenwolf, Second City is Chicago’s most sought out theatre destination for out-of-towners — for theatregoers, for actors and comedians in search of training and experience and opportunity, for professionals in the entertainment industry looking for up-and-coming performers and/or writers. No one at Second City is more keenly aware of this than the folks involved in the revues on the Mainstage. I have seen several revues on the E.T.C. stage that were notably funnier and edgier than their concurrent Mainstage counterparts. I wouldn’t say that Mainstage shows tend to play to the least common denominator; rather, that the weight of being THE Second City revue — at least, as far as the wide world is concerned — tends to pull a Mainstage show out of the dark corners, away from the fringe, and more toward the middle.

The new Mainstage revue, Panic on Cloud 9, is unconcerned with anything but being the funniest damn show it can be.

The mostly rapid barrage of sketches mostly avoids the easier, more comfortable laughs as it lays waste to society’s preconceived notions about disparate subjects: from the experience of the comatose, to the affirmation of children, to the Secret Service. The pacing is broken halfway through the show by a comparatively long cowboy sketch — but, instead of bringing the party to an abrupt end, it serves as the spotlight dance.

The Second City Panic on Cloud 9

This is a talented, cohesive ensemble. Chelsea Devantez John Hartman, Paul Jurewicz, Daniel Strauss, Christine Tawfik, and Emily Walker are all fantastic utility players. Chelsea Devantez and Emily Walker are given the greater variety of personalities to portray, and are both cunning actors.

The Second City Panic on Cloud 9

The star shining most visibly through Panic on Cloud 9 is John Hartman. He can and does play some fairly regular guys in some sketches, but the quirkier the character, the more he excels at playing that character. He’s like a plate spinner of idiosyncrasies: the more oddball things he has to do simultaneously, the more enjoyable and impressive his performance becomes. Hartman’s youthful looks belie his years of outstanding work here in Chicago — not only in Panic on Cloud 9 and Depraved New World on the Second City Mainstage, but notably with the improv troupes 1, 2, 3, Fag! and the Improvised Shakespeare Company at iO, and his successful solo shows Your Friends and Enemies and I’m Sorry I Missed You at the Annoyance. He’s honed his craft, he’s paid his dues, and, within five years of whenever he takes the leap to New York or Los Angeles, he’ll be a household name.

The Second City Panic on Cloud 9

Panic on Cloud 9 is a daring, hilarious triumph for the Second City Mainstage — the best Mainstage revue in years.  Once the word gets out through the Chicago media as to just how delightful Panic on Cloud 9 is, the out-of-towners may find themselves hard pressed to get tickets.

 

4 STARS

(“Panic on Cloud 9″ is in OPEN RUN at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 North Wells Street. 312-337-3992.)


The Second City

 

Panic on Cloud 9 production photos by Todd Rosenberg.

A Christmas Carol – REVIEW

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By J. Scott Hill

Few works of fiction have ever been as dear to so many for so long as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  The book was an instant classic, and almost immediately adapted for the stage by Dickens himself.  The Goodman Theatre has spent thirty-seven holiday seasons telling and re-telling the greatest ghost story ever told — the past seven with Larry Yando as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Yando is among Chicago’s finest and busiest actors.  Over the last few years, he has wowed audiences and critics in a constant variety of roles at theatres all over Chicagoland, including his work at Theatre at the Center as Andrew in Sleuth, at Court Theatre as Roy Cohn is Angels in America, and at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre as Casca in Julius Caesar and (most recently) as the eponymous King Lear.

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After absolutely killing it night after night in role after role, it might be reasonable for Larry Yando to treat his standing gig in A Christmas Carol as a soft place for him to land for the holidays, but Yando keeps his Scrooge hard and sharp and thorny.  Yando’s Scrooge does not fly off into a prolonged mad panic at the appearance of a few spirits, and quickly resigns himself to the inevitability of being dragged through time and space by his preternatural guides.  He is as tough a master as any a Scrooge, but he is a man who can and does learn from his past, his present, and his probable future.  So many Scrooges are broken by their glimpses into their own cruelty and greed and their fear of repeating Marley’s fate, but Yando’s Scrooge comes across as a man who has been thoroughly convinced by what he sees into following the road less traveled.  In short, Larry Yando’s portrayal of Scrooge is broad and subtle, hateful and endearing, conniving and convivial — and brilliant.

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Of course, the Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol is not a one-person show.  Ron E. Rains gives poor, longsuffering Bob Cratchit an inescapable warmth; Rains excels when doing a bit of stage business in the background, bringing it to the foreground to take a devilishly comic turn, and then receding once again into the background like an obedient clark.  The always-engaging Joe Foust plays Marley’s Ghost as both haunting and haunted. Larry Neumann, Jr. plays four different parts and disappears into each character so completely that I had to check the Playbill more than once to be absolutely certain whom I was watching.  Neumann, Foust, and Yando are three masters of their art; knowing any one of them is appearing in a show is enough reason to buy a ticket.

But wait, there’s more.

Kim Schultz steals wonderful moments while playing several different characters. Kareem Bandealy cunningly bends the fourth wall without completely destroying it as the Narrator, and shines portraying Scrooge as a Young Man’s ruinous obliviousness to his decent into avarice. Young Ava Morse has a singing voice so pitch-perfect and so sweet that it fills the stage with joy.

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Joy.

The Goodman Theatre’s thirty-seventh annual production of A Christmas Carol is pure joy.  Whether the Goodman’s Christmas Carol is already one of your holiday traditions, or whether you hardly ever go to see live theatre, give yourself a gift: go see this production.

4 STARS

(“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 28 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. 312-443-3800)

Goodman Theatre ~ Official Site of the Tony Award® winning Goodman Theatre 

A Christmas Carol production photos by Liz Lauren.

Porgy and Bess – Lyric Opera REVIEW

PorgyandBess

Porgy and Bess

By George Gershwin

Lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Lori Dana

Most American musical theater fans are familiar with Porgy and Bess. It is believed by many to be the first truly American opera (it opened on Broadway in 1935) and was certainly the first to focus on African American (then called “Negro”) culture. In fact, composer George Gershwin felt so strongly about the cultural integrity of the work that he insisted that Porgy and Bess never be presented without an African American cast. This decision was also informed in no small part by his belief that classically trained opera singers could not do justice to the opera’s jazz idiom. Though successfully revived in 1942 and again in 1952 (when revisions to the production made it more an opera and less a stage musical), Porgy and Bess remained on the fringes of American theater culture until a landmark production by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976 brought the work full circle. With the full score of the piece restored, audiences experienced Porgy and Bess as the composer envisioned it for the first time since 1935 and its full potential as a cultural narrative and as a true opera was restored. This is the story audiences are experiencing in the current Lyric Opera of Chicago production, and despite the controversy that will always surround its relevancy to African American culture, Porgy and Bess remains a compelling piece of theater and a wonder of modern composition.

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Based on DuBose Heyward’s 1925 play Porgy, Gershwin’s folk opera chronicles Negro life on Catfish Row, (inspired by the Cabbage Row neighborhood in Heyward’s native Charleston, SC.) populated by crab fishermen, dockworkers, and street hustlers. The plot revolves around the hustler Crown, his lover Bess, and the crippled beggar Porgy. During a craps game, Crown kills a popular local man and abandons the drug-addicted Bess when he goes on the run from the local police. The boozy party girl, whose brazen behavior has not endeared her to the local religious ladies, takes shelter with the only person who will have her. Porgy, for his part, sees the good in Bess as he knows what it’s like to be judged on appearances. Bess cleans up, and eventually his neighbors’ respect and affection for Porgy begins to extend to his lady as well. Happy days for Porgy and Bess, as for most residents of Catfish Row, are unfortunately short-lived. Crown returns to claim his “property” in a brutal rape scene and Porgy exacts deadly revenge. Bess disappears, bound for her old life in New York, and as the final curtain falls Porgy prepares to follow her and bring her home.

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Celebrated director Francesca Zambello, whose acclaimed productions of Porgy and Bess have graced the stages of the National Opera in Washington, The Los Angeles Opera and The San Francisco Opera, brings a cast of seasoned singers to the stage for this Lyric Opera of Chicago production. The women are, without exception, marvelous singers and actresses. From the first refrain of the iconic “Summertime” (soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Clara) to the gospel mourning of widow Serena (soprano Karen Slack) to the hilarious in-your-face proclamations of matriarch Maria (contralto Gwendolyn Brown), the voices in the female roles are top-notch. And of course, there is Adina Aaron’s Bess, portrayed with a powerful combination of raunchy sexuality and bruised self-image. The men’s supporting roles don’t fare quite as well. Despite solid vocal performances, the male voices as a group don’t have the confidence and power to push excellent dramatic performances from Eric Greene as Crown and Norman Garrett as Jake over the top. Jermaine Smith does a good job of channeling Cab Calloway (the original Sportin’ Life, for whom the role was written) and Ryan Center alum Will Liverman creates a highly entertaining and humorous Lawyer Frazier. In the role of Porgy however, bass-baritone Eric Owens shows complete mastery of his character. Previous portrayals of the kind-hearted beggar (most recently the 2008-09 production at San Francisco Opera) have obviously given Owens the opportunity to delve deeply into Porgy’s character, and to make it his own. Those in the audience expecting just the handsome delivery of Porgy’s famous musical numbers (I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, Bess, You Is My Woman Now) are getting much more than they bargained for. Owen’s Porgy is a simple man struggling with complex moral issues and, for the first time in his life, experiencing love. He delivers a totally engaging and masterful performance.

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Despite the entire package of top-notch production values, powerful dramatic performances, skillful and evocative choreography, excellent singing (by cast and the Lyric Opera Chorus); one must recognize that the biggest star of Porgy and Bess is its amazing score. With inspiration drawn from soaring Gospel choruses, soulful spirituals, and 1920’s roadhouse jazz, Gershwin’s music is uniquely vibrant and 100% American. Dynamic young conductor Ward Stare (a former principal trombonist with the Lyric Opera Orchestra) has a deep affinity for this music and for the players, his former colleagues. He is able to draw a phenomenal performance of Gershwin’s work from the Lyric Orchestra. It embodies a subtlety and style that many in the audience have never encountered in this music before. Who knew there was so much soul in that orchestra pit? Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current season continues to surprise and inspire us.

3 ½ STARS

(“Porgy and Bess,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through December 20th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Porgy and Bess production photos by Todd Rosenberg. 

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